The influential sci-fi comic is finally brought to life. Galactic law enforcers Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are on the hunt for a rare and extremely valuable item. But, they get tangled up in a conspiracy that involves the military and an alien race that was thought to be extinct.
The Film of a Thousand Colors
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one of the most vivid and engrossing visual experiences I’ve had at the theater in a long time, possibly since the underappreciated masterpiece Speed Racer. That’s not something worth dismissing as a secondary element to the film. The enormous amount of care that’s been put into making this film pop off the screen deserves high praise. The sheer diversity of creative alien species and sci-fi world-building is worthy of applause. In an age where blockbuster cinema from the likes of Marvel and DC is very often derivative and surprisingly bland in the color palette department, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feels totally fresh.
Granted, it isn’t really. We simply began to move away from overtly fantastical and vibrant genre spectacle as audiences became more enamored with grounded approaches to their fiction. We used to get movies like Valerian more often – writer/director Luc Besson’s own The Fifth Element is a good example – but now they feel special. The film doesn’t look to comic books for their characters (we’ll get to that) or their interconnectivity. Instead, it’s interested in the pure aesthetic of the medium and translating that to film. Valerian is as much inspired by comics as it is prog rock albums and the psychedelic sci-fi of the 60s and 70s. We don’t really see those influences in tentpole films and it’s great to see them realized here with such apparent joy for the material.
Classic Pulp Adventure
It’s also worth comparing Valerian to the recent reboot of Star Wars since the original French comic was definitely an influence on George Lucas’s film. The sense of pulp adventure has somewhat left Star Wars with its recent entries. The new films fall more along the lines of classical fantasy storytelling and (again) grounded approaches like Rogue One. There is a simplicity to pulp stories that is admirable when handled correctly, and Valerian mostly does pure pulp right.
The jaunty tone and hopalong nature of the story is straight out of some sordid paperback from the 1930s. There’s a genuine sense of discovery, bizarre ideas, and cultural variety that hearkens back to tales of heroes exploring exotic lands and getting into all sorts of trouble. It might be antiquated but it’s a style of story that we don’t get any more. To see it play out in front of such a captivating canvas as Valerian offers is a treat.
When Simplicity Backfires
But, simplicity is hard to get perfect. And Valerian has too many flaws that stem from its simple nature. Our heroes, Valerian and Laureline, are paper-thin characters with an aggressively bland romance connecting them together. Maybe that would be boosted if Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne brought oodles of charisma to their roles but they don’t. They aren’t bad – Delevigne gets some good laughs and moments of badassery – but they don’t have the natural charm it takes to anchor these kinds of roles.
Also hurting the film is that it’s simply too long. Yes, that does mean we get lots more alien shenanigans and they are a joy, but it’s at the cost of good pacing and structure. There is an entire diversion in the film’s second act involving a shapeshifting dancer (played by Rihanna) that goes on way too long and does nothing for the overall plot. Still, there’s tons of fun during that sequence that you’ll smile at. But, it ultimately feels like it could have been a single issue of the comic instead of a part of a bigger arc. This doesn’t help things when the film slogs its way through the third act. All the gonzo aliens and rainbow colors take a backseat to a very weak conclusion.
Is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Good?
It’s eye candy at its absolute sweetest, but what you really want is eye protein. There is very little substance behind all the gorgeous polish. That doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t offer simple pleasures. It does and with delightful regularity. Seeing it on a big screen will be worth your time. But, don’t expect most of it to stick with you. If anything, I can’t wait to get a coffee table book with all the artwork from the film. In that way, it’s a true comic book movie brought the big screen. It’s a celebration of color and adventure and that’s gotta be worth something.