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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has too much Valerian, too little Thousand Planets

This movie is one good ending away from being a cult classic.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
You will probably know if you want to see this movie just by looking at this picture.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The first five minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, iconoclast Luc Besson’s latest magnum opus, emotionally overwhelmed me in a way I wasn’t expecting, in a way I dare not say a word more about.

The next 20 minutes or so weren’t quite to that level, but they were a fun first-act romp, first setting up a deep, interstellar tragedy that befalls a peaceful alien race, and then bounding half a galaxy away for an action sequence involving Valerian, our hero, having to fight off attackers while his arm is stuck in another dimension.

“This is good,” I thought. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

Weird, wildly imaginative sci-fi is my jam, and Valerian bursts with ideas. Every few minutes, Besson tosses out seemingly half a dozen more, leaving viewers breathless from the movie’s scope. He’ll casually drop in, say, a chase sequence where Valerian bursts through walls into various zones within the titular city (so named because it has accommodations for so many different alien species), and then follow it up with something even zanier.

But the longer Valerian runs, the more energy begins to ooze out of it, like it’s slowly deflating. By the time the climax rolled around, I found myself strangely complacent about the whole thing. It’s the rare movie where I feel no real compunctions about spoiling the ending, but also regret that I’ve told you even a little bit about the early action sequences.

In other words, it’s a movie that just stops being exciting, where the final action sequence is the most perfunctory gun battle imaginable, where the titular character ends up being the least interesting character of all.

But maybe that’s the point.

Valerian’s opening sequence is a great microcosm of what the movie wants to be but can’t quite become

Valerian is based on the French comics Valérian and Laureline, which depict the far-future adventures of the titular duo, who wander deep space in search of adventures to have and missions to complete. The series, published from 1967 to 2010, is considered a cornerstone of French comics, though it’s less well-known in the US. (This has shades of the much more popular Tintin, also finally turned into a big-budget movie in the 2010s.)

In creating the scenario for the film, Besson was able to simply riff on many of the comics’ core ideas, one of which is the difficult intersection of bang-bang, pew-pew space opera fun and larger questions of ethical behavior. Valerian is, in essence, a movie about how diplomacy and talking out problems are less cinematically interesting than a big space battle, but also necessary for the survival of intelligent life in the universe.

That’s an idea first introduced in that prologue — in which Besson covers roughly 250 years of history — by a series of time cuts that leap forward across the decades. American astronauts first welcome Chinese space voyagers to their space station in the year 2020, and Besson keeps cutting forward and forward (to the strains of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), as delegations from unnamed other nations join the space station and then other planets, every meeting marked with a simple handshake.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Let’s all move to Alpha. Why not?

The station, now known as Alpha, grows and grows as millions come to live upon it, and then it pushes off for the stars, before it can grow so heavy it affects Earth’s tides. It’s meant as a beacon of hope and cooperation for every species it encounters.

It’s a good idea in theory. But there are human beings on board, and human beings are often violent and avaricious, which means there are secrets buried deep within Alpha that some would kill to protect. It’s a basic setup, but Besson keeps returning to the idea that greeting a new culture in a spirit of cooperation with a firm handshake is preferable to greeting them in a warlike manner. And yet we keep falling into those old warlike patterns. Why?

There’s good reason that opening scene succeeds so beautifully (as do the sequences immediately following) where the rest of the film struggles. Besson is illustrating his central ideas about openness and collaboration being the way forward for humanity (and whatever other intelligent species might be occupying the Milky Way) without overwhelming the audience with exposition.

But as the film circles closer and closer to its climax, it overexplains everything, to the point where it will depict something happening and then have Valerian summarize exactly what we just saw happen. It’s like the movie loses its nerve a little bit more with every scene.

It doesn’t help that Valerian and Laureline themselves (about which more in the next section) are such unengaging conduits through which to view this particular story. Because we’re just getting to know them, the idea that they might realize the interplanetary law enforcement agency they work for has done very bad things doesn’t shake us as much as it might. In short, they’re less the people driving the story and more the people along for the ride.

But you should still see this movie if you have any affection for big, bold science fiction at all.

Valerian is a little like Avatar or the Star Wars prequels — but in a good way

The best thing about Valerian is that it’s chock-full of stuff, much of which is taken from the comics. (My favorites: three little birdlike creatures who love knowledge and capitalism and pop up at odd times to offer Valerian and Laureline what intelligence they’ve managed to glean from every corner of Alpha.) Every frame of the movie feels like a junior high doodle page where the artist has found a little space for a new monster design right over here.

It reminded me of big world-building movies where the directors knew their stories were a little thin, so they just kept tossing more things up onscreen. Think, for instance, of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, or James Cameron’s Avatar. Or think even of the Star Wars prequels, which had a dreadfully bland story about intergalactic politics (that strained for a kind of complexity it couldn’t quite achieve), but also some fun creature designs and special effects scattered throughout almost every scene.

Valerian is better, on the whole, than most of the movies above. (I’d probably give Avatar the edge.) But it has a similar issue with trying to stretch too little story over too long a running time. It wants to be a boldly political tale of diplomacy winning the day — but also a high-tech space romp. And while the two halves of its divided heart come close to embracing, they end up a few inches apart, in a climax that ends with the most halfhearted explosion imaginable.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
For instance, a whole planet is destroyed in the first 30 minutes.

Thus, Valerian and Laureline’s role as tour guides wasn’t as distracting as it could have because I was enjoying just how many crazy concepts Besson could toss onscreen. It’s like his 1997 film The Fifth Element, but cubed and set in an outer space version of Zootopia. The movie will frequently lose track of the story entirely to become the tale of a shape-shifting space blob played by Rihanna who dreams of stardom and worries about her status as an illegal immigrant on board Alpha. And more often than not, my response to this was, “You know what? Why not!”

Still, that’s not going to be the response of everybody, especially with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the stars. I’ve liked DeHaan in other things (especially his work on HBO’s In Treatment and in this year’s bafflingly ill-conceived but fascinating A Cure for Wellness), but he keeps getting cast in parts that require a roguish charisma he doesn’t really have. He’s better at playing characters who are unexpectedly and suddenly unraveling — see Amazing Spider-Man 2, in which he’s one of the few good things. But he’s Valerian’s weak link, and he could have sunk the movie.

Fortunately for all of us, though, DeLevingne’s continually odd screen presence wanders in to save the day. I don’t know if I genuinely like DeLevingne as an actress or just enjoy how she often seems to be surprised to have wandered onto a movie set, but her work in Valerian, off-kilter and laced with sarcasm, is my favorite performance from her yet. She reminds me a little of what would have happened if Margot Kidder and Shelley Duvall had somehow combined their respective talents in a lab, and I hope this movie’s inevitable bombing doesn’t kill her career.

Actually, I hope the movie doesn’t bomb (though I can’t imagine it becoming a major hit in the US — it’s too idiosyncratic for that). Films this big and this bold with this obviously big a budget come along so rarely that they’re worth savoring even when they misfire. Besson doesn’t know how to take half measures, a welcome trait in a world increasingly full of cookie-cutter blockbusters. If that means he’s often jetting off into deep space without any real plans to return to Earth, by God, give me the stars.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is playing everywhere. Try convincing your most literal-minded friend to see it with you. It’ll make for a good story.

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