**1/2 out of ****
(for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material, and brief language)
Released: July 21, 2017
Runtime: 137 minutes
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke
This is the first movie I’ve ever enjoyed from start to finish in which I had absolutely no idea what was going on at any given moment. Congratulations Valerian, that’s some sort of accomplishment.
An eye candy crush of a spectacle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is like two-plus hours of psychedelic sci-fi concept art come to glorious life, but unfolding more like a movie pitch than an actual movie, or a feature-length trailer that does a phenomenal job of not giving away the plot and avoiding all spoilers. Yet it’s a testament to how stunning these visual concepts are that it can still, single handedly, entertain strictly as a mesmerizing fever dream.
Director Luc Besson’s instinct to do it all with a light touch is key, too, especially since his narrative couldn’t be more random and convoluted. “It’s a mission that doesn’t make sense!” one character so accurately vents during an unintended meta moment.
Further confusing this universe set 500 years in the future is how technology can at times defy physics, space, and time (and maybe even dimensional plains?), but it all looks so mind-blowingly cool that the complete inexplicability of it all is never really a drag, nor is the movie ever really a slog.
Honestly, the biggest drawback of Valerian isn’t its stream-of-consciousness construct but, well, its Valerian. For a special agent hero described as a suave superstud lady killer, Dane DeHaan’s beach bum swagger makes him horribly miscast. He’s like a scrawny version of Keanu Reeves, and minus the dry charm. DeHaan’s a good actor (and we see that in sincere, sentimental moments) but he’s not a good fit here.
It’s a problem (or perhaps a saving grace, depending on how you look at it) when the more compelling lead isn’t the one in the title. That would be Laureline, Valerian’s partner and would-be love interest; he’s pursuing her hard but she’s not having it, more focused on being a better operative, action hero, and overall screen presence than the guy who fails to be her equal.
Cara Delevingne, a model turned moody actress, explodes with attitude and charisma in a way she never has before, making you wish this was Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets. The title of the French comic series this is based on, “Valerian and Laureline”, makes you wonder why it isn’t. Of the two characters to reduce the movie’s namesake to, Besson chose poorly (especially since, from Le Femme Nikita to Lucy, the Fifth Element filmmaker has generally done better with female leads anyway).
An exposition-heavy final act ends up explaining a lot, so much so that you sit there thinking, “Wow, I really could’ve used this about an hour-and-a-half ago.” The clarity ends up being a bonus rather than a belated insult because, by the time it comes, it offers you something you never really needed anyway: an explanation.
Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets may be the ultimate achievement in style over substance, validating its existence and your time with it (if barely) simply on the power of its imagination alone.