There’s always a handful of big budget wanna-be blockbusters that gain attention for all the wrong reasons leading into the summer as potential or predicted box office failures despite any quality they bring to the table at their time of release. Enter “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, touted as the most expensive independent film ever made which was killed at the box office on its opening weekend. While it’s far from a shining example of perfection, “Valerian” is still a entertaining sci fi epic even if it’s no more than a generic and visually stunning space adventure that can’t stand out from the crowd.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, also simply called “Valerian”, follows the exploits of the titular space-traveling agent, an egotistic playboy played by Dane DeHaan who has a major interest in his partner Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, who herself is a confident badass. Together they becomes entangled in a long-standing hidden conspiracy within Alpha, a floating space stations containing habitats for species of a thousand different plants as a place of shared wisdom and existence. When Valerian begins having strange visions and creatures from those visions of unknown origin kidnap the station’s human commander, played by Clive Owen, Valerian and Laureline embark on a mission to save their commander, unraveling a harsh reality and hidden secret in the process.
For what it is “Valerian” comes packed with a slew of creative and colorful characters of both human and alien origin that creates a truly enjoyable world both on and off of Alpha for the viewer to enjoy. The story focuses mostly on DeHaan’s Valerian and Delevingne’s Laureline with each of the characters having their own moments to shine with their underlying love story playing a part in their trust and devotion to each other. While their performances are far from perfect I did feel both DeHaan and Delevingne seemed to really have a lot of fun making this film and embraced a chemistry that makes their pair of space traveling agents a true joy to watch…at times.
I can’t say the acting is perfect and I think many of the problems the actors had were probably the result of poor writing. I lost count of how many times the line “I work for the government” or some variation of it was said by either of the leading characters and more clunky dialogue in other spots made for even more cringe worthy moments that took away from otherwise great performances by the leads. Even giving them credit where credit is due for their on screen chemistry and upbeat performances, both lead actors showed their own legitimate flaws in this film. DeHaan, who broke onto the scene in a big way as the emotional and abused lead in “Chronicle”, presents yet another relatively dry character adding to a list of uninspired works DeHaan has presented in recent years. We do get much more personality from DeHaan than his past roles however as Valerian blurs the line between hopeless romantic and egomaniac, and sometimes rides that line pretty effectively. Still, while DeHaan fully embraces the playboy aspect of Valerian in the films first act, once the action starts on Alpha we see the same old dark and rather boring DeHaan that has littered his more recent big-screen outings. Cara Delevingne takes a slightly different route in this film however, going WAY above the quality of her pervious film roles to portray a cocky and confident female combatant who holds her own. However there is one scene that made be cringe seeing Delevingne interact with a CGI alien showing her dresses in a truly awful showing of forced and awkward acting. It goes to show that while Cara has made some great strides in her acting range, she still has a lot to learn to be flawless on the big screen all the way through.
Elsewhere in the cast we do get a few other standout performances, and a few more forgettable ones. Clive Owen serves as a major player in the story as Arun Filitt, the commander of the human agents on Alpha. Owen tries to breath some real life into his suspicious character, but in the end we don’t really see much from him other than a generic might-be villain who hides in the shadows of lesser characters and proves to be forgettable at best. On the other end of the spectrum we have a surprise role for Ethan Hawke who portrays an amusing and over-the-top pimp and Rihanna playing a shape-shifting artistic alien named Bubble with both performances being among the more memorable side characters in the film. John Goodman also has a voice role as an alien crime boss (shown above) who is actually more intimidating and interesting than the film’s actual villain and, assuming the film has an astounding underdog story of a run to get a sequel, could make for a great antagonist in a later film.
A bright side to “Valerian” is that this film just looks beautiful, with all kinds of alien worlds and life forms to appreciate and stare at in awe. However, even with all that substance available we only really get to enjoy the bright and wondrous side of this larger universe for the first quarter of the movie. Once the plot kicks into high gear in the city of Alpha we find ourselves in a much darker and less interesting setting that really doesn’t do justice to the imagery and creativity put into the overall presentation of an out-of-this-world adventure. While the aliens and characters presented in “Valerian” are intriguing and well designed, we only really spend time getting to enjoy a few of them for extended periods of time. What few species we do get to appreciate however are entertaining and present their own personalities and traits that help them stand out among the thousands of potential species in the film so that’s a plus.
What “Valerian” really lacks is a bit of substance. It starts off strong and proves to be a fun sci-fi epic that’s great to look at and keeps the ball rolling to prevent the audience from getting bored, but in the end it’s not much of a unique story. The supposed twist at the end is predictable and while the film’s major conflict is tied up in a nice bow, that ending comes from a rather summarized final battle that feels rushed and out of place in a film that takes forever to get there with numerous side quests and subplots along the way. In fact the journey to the climax is more fun than the final act itself, making for an ironically boring ending to an adventure that, honestly, has a lot to offer at times. “Valerian” as a film knows what it wants to be, but that’s not really enough to make it work its $250 million investment because viewers have seen this before, they know what to expect, and while the concept may draw in a few interested parties the space epic sub genre is so over-saturated with more creative stories and franchises “Valerian” just doesn’t offer enough beyond its good looks to be more than an average, if enjoyably cliche, generic sci fi tale with everything we love from these stories, but not enough of its own unique quality to stand out in any way.
I wouldn’t call “Valerian” a mess of a film, because it’s not. Well, not completely. It DOES have some cringe worthy dialogue, a few bland moments of poor acting and writing, and a predictable plot with a boring final fight, but it makes up for it with a few standout performances, a creative and colorful collection of worlds and species to appreciate, and a dynamic leading duo who might not turn in the best performances of their career, but share great chemistry on screen all the same. “Valerian” CAN be a fun experience if you want it to be, but for a film this costly in a genre were any form of mediocrity is considered unacceptable “Valerian” is only a passable film at best where it could have been so much more.