I’m not a new-generation video game fan, which is probably why the charm of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter referred to as simply Valerian) was lost on me. In previous reviews for Pacific Rim and Kong: Skull Island, I decry the overuse of computer-generated imagery (CGI) when it becomes the story as opposed to helping to tell the story. Valerian is the kind of movie that not only fits my oft-repeated statement of “this film feels like you’re in someone’s dorm room watching them play video games,” it actually plays out like one of these first-person adventure quests.
Your avatars for the game will be Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two government agents assigned to retrieve a “converter” which could possibly spell doom for life as we know it. Valerian is the point man; Laureline is the armed backup. These two must infiltrate an extra-dimensional market to interrupt the sale of the converter and bring it back to their commander, Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), whose motives for this operation may be suspect. However, they find soon enough that all isn’t what it seems, and that’s a hell of an understatement, considering the film is chock-full of visual eye-candy.
Here again, writer/director Luc Besson has a somewhat romantically-involved male/female team who must find some kind of artifact in order to save civilization, and there’s even a performer (Rihanna) who lends a hand in her own peculiar way. Sound familiar to you? It should be, as Valerian’s source material (the French comic series Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières) informed and inspired aspects of Besson’s 1997 science-fiction extravaganza The Fifth Element. Right away, the sexual tension between the two leads is made a central theme throughout the film, with numerous callbacks to Laureline not wanting to be just a name on Valerian’s playlist. However, it gets overplayed and made into a mountain where a molehill would have served better. The only thing seemingly linking these two is Valerian’s desire to own Laureline when she clearly is her own woman, and it’s completely unnecessary to the larger plot at hand.
For all my complaining, at least Besson dares to dream big. Colorfully big. The film’s opening – taking place on a faraway planet’s beach – is something to behold, even in 3D, as the landscapes and textures reach out and grab you. Yes, it’s all CGI-driven and motion-captured, but there’s something undeniably terrific about Besson’s colorful and moving vision of extraterrestrials and their ways of life. It’s only when mankind enters the picture that the film gets bent with no hope of repair, both in the film world and aesthetically.
Both DeHaan and Delevingne are better described as the aforementioned avatars instead of actual characters. Character depth is attempted but not achieved in any meaningful way, except to paint Valerian as a horndog whose sole purpose is to follow orders. Delevingne almost sleepwalks through the movie with few changes of expression or tone; the same goes for DeHaan, whose steely-eyed gaze and husky voice seem to be the best he can muster. They’re not engaging enough, but how can they be when the visual effects take every chance to steal your attention away from them?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets does get points for its out-there vision and visuals; there’s no lacking for imagination as far as these aspects are concerned. However, when it comes to story and the human element, I’d rather watch John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, which covers a lot of the same ground (and a few character arcs). My advice: if you’re going to see it, make sure to do so in 3D and on a Dolby Vision screen, where colors and brightness won’t be compromised. If you’re going to do it, go big and appreciate Besson’s CGI-ejaculate in the best possible way.