Published Jul 20, 2017There's a lot going on in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Not all of it works, but when it does, it's bright, loud, thrilling and glorious to gawk at. A holographic desert marketplace full of dawdling tourists, a jellyfish that reveals memories if you stick your head inside it, gossiping pigeon aliens, magical pearl generators, an almost-extinct armadillo creature that poops out multiples of whatever it eats — it's a lot.
The wistful opening montage that tracks the development of space colonisation over hundreds of years, from humans to an increasingly weirder series of aliens, all set to Bowie's "Space Oddity," sums up the film's feel nicely; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets presents us with bizarre and beautiful wonders, and it doesn't really matter how they got there. It's not smart sci-fi, but to its credit, it doesn't try to be.
The biggest problem here is that Valerian's two leads are ill-suited to carrying this type of freewheeling space extravaganza. Luc Besson's cult hit The Fifth Element feels like a spiritual predecessor to this film, but Valerian lacks its snappiness and bonkers sense of fun. The closest it comes to replicating that energy is in the scene where special agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is on the hunt for someone that can help him transform into one of the hulking space creatures that has mistaken his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) for food — another tangent that's almost totally unrelated to the plot, but a damn good time.
Valerian enters into a bustling red light district that combines sexy sleaze with surreal otherworldliness, and a cowboy pimp played by Ethan Hawke introduces him to the shape-shifting exotic dancer, Bubble (Rihanna). Rihanna's performance is so spirited and lively that one almost wishes she were the lead instead of Delevingne, who, outside of a few outbursts, mostly glowers and rebuffs Valerian's advances.
DeHaan was fine as the tragic, moony hero of 2017's other flawed-yet-uniquely strange film, A Cure for Wellness, but that role didn't require the charisma and charm of Valerian. It's easy to compare the character to Bruce Willis's, cocky smartass Corbin Dallas, and an actor with more magnetism might have been a better fit for the role. Neither Delevingne nor DeHaan phone in their performance, and both are clearly trying to give it their all, but it's tough to shine when you're miscast.
Valerian is so enamoured with the fantastic world it's created that it meanders along series of tangents and hijinks that, while delightfully silly, inspired and exciting, makes the already-thin plot (something or other about a race of peaceful, Avatar-esque aliens from a destroyed beach planet who want to recover their lost technology from a war-mongering general, played by a very goofy Clive Owen) suffers as a result.
That being said, the plot isn't the main draw here. Every time the pace of the film slows down enough for the audience to question when we're going to get to the point already, Valerian introduces another stunning set piece, or wacky alien, or neat techno-gadget. It doesn't concern itself with the mechanics of these gadgets, or how those wacky aliens got there.
It's a distraction, but it's a colourful and entertaining one. To interrogate Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is to miss the fun of it all.