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Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

The soulless Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn't awful, but misses a golden opportunity to redefine the genre.

Review by Matt Cummings

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has so many obstacles in its path that it's hard to understand . Its name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Strike one. Its leads are unknown. Strike 2. And there's another similar movie out there called Star Wars. And while it does majestically strike out, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets does so with some style, making it passable entertainment but in no way generating a shift for the genre.

Serving 1,000 planets, the sprawling 28th Century space metropolis Alpha is home to the galaxy's knowledge and culture. Helping to defend this world and the others are space/time agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are to escort Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) to a meeting of planetary representatives to deliver a dire message: Alpha is home to a growing radiation pocket deep inside its interior which will eventually destroy the metropolis. This mystery is just the beginning of the madness for Valerian and Laureline, as they become embroiled in a dark secret that threatens not only the safety of Alpha but the stability of the alliance which Earth has brokered over hundreds of years. The results will force our agents to come to terms about each other's feelings for the other, while learning about the fate of an ancient world that's been strangely scrubbed from the memory banks.

Right from opening, it's clear that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wants to be an epic that supplants Star Wars, Avatar, Independence Day, and many others. It's got a ton of exotic creatures, incredible universe building, and a style that closely mirrors Director Luc Besson's masterpiece The Fifth Element. But it offers none of the heart of those movies, surrounding us instead with highly choreographed moments that feel empty and therefore generate little interest. We never get the sense that Valerian and Laureline are in any real danger, that Alpha is about to go down the universal toilet, or that mankind is about to take the next great step in its evolution. It never takes a chance to do anything but bare necessities: a moment of visual beauty by Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, pulled down by clunky dialogue, with a reveal that makes little sense. At least Valerian shows us the villain early on, so we can't mark it down for that, but it's clear that other elements of the story are in dire need of repair.

Valerian wants us to believe that a 30-year-old atrocity committed by the villain would somehow find itself swept under the bureaucratic rug, even though Writer Besson seems comfortable making such a leap. In an interconnected world like Valerian, news of that importance would have swept over the galaxy to overcome the Earth. That's a terrible assumption to make, but it's not the only error Besson makes. He seems to think funny moments and cute creatures can supplant real story - something that bogged down Lucy and the later Taken films. The reason why Star Wars works is because of its story, not just its world building. Besson's choices to lead this film don't help either.

Both DeHaan and Delevigne are good supporting actors, but in Valerian they feel as out of place as their characters do in the larger universe. Their chemistry never jumps off the page, with DeHaan playing Han Solo and Delevinge doing her best Princess Leia. Both dance around the other, while Owen barely appears here, perhaps entertaining only five scenes within the entire movie. His role in things is revealed early on, demonstrating that Besson does at least understand reveals and how they play into the larger story. Music by Composer Alexandre Desplat doesn't exactly inspire a sense of grandeur either.

But above all of that, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn't have a soul. This has the possibility of becoming a wide-open universe of amazing worlds and creatures, surrounded by the efforts of two humans to help a people reclaim their world. Instead, it's fairly lifeless as our actors speak their lines without inhabiting their characters, while Besson throws out the next epic political commentary on immigration, tolerance, and brotherly love. Valerian could have been Star Trek, with its Federation of Planets representing a massive humanitarian armada and its officers righting the wrongs like space-faring town marshals. Its huge second act really sends things awry, as Valerian and Laureline interact with a subculture hidden deep inside Alpha, all just to find the other. A cameo and hot performance by Rhianna keep us on our toes, but it never amounts to anything central to the story.

A long-winded space epic that misses a golden opportunity to redefine the genre, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn't awful but it's downright disappointing if you attach any importance to Besson's work. If you don't mind a dizzying array of planets and characters, surrounded by milktoast leads and vanilla dialogue, you're sure to love the universe building and pure insanity behind Besson's film. You might also be comparing it to The Fifth Element, which is far better at any moment than Valerian is at its best. This film will either become a cult classic or instantly disappear under the growing pile of dung that's become Summer 2017; and just like its director, you'll either love Valerian or storm out demanding your money. That's not a great marketing concept to build an entire franchise upon, so don't say I didn't warn you.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language and has a runtime of 137 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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