An eerily familiar choral sigh — one that turned out to be the first chord of a percussive, crescendoing remix of the Beatles’ “Because” — punctuated the first beat of the first teaser trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
It was likely the first time a lot of viewers outside of Europe had ever heard of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ Valérian et Laureline, the long-running French space opera comic the movie is adapted from. But it hardly mattered, because Valerian instead looked like something very familiar — director Luc Besson’s first return to space opera since the The Fifth Element, a “cult classic” that made nearly three times its budget at the box office. For many fans, the possibility of a new film with Element’s distinctive visual style, ambitious special effects and Romantic approach to mapping the sci-fi future of humanity is a tantalizing one.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), special operatives charged with maintaining the rule of law throughout space. In the comics, the two also protect the timestream, but Besson’s film stays anchored firmly in a time period centuries into the future, when the International Space Station has been converted into a planet-sized, wandering space station where all the galaxy can coexist and share knowledge — the titular City of a Thousand Planets.
Our story begins with Valerian and Laureline clumsily bantering in order to establish that the two partners have a will-they-won’t-they tension to their relationship, with Cara Delevingne spinning the better gold out of the often painfully wooden and exposition-heavy dialogue. Their initial assignment — from which the rest of the plot of the film flows — is to infiltrate Big Market and recover a Mül Converter, the last of its kind.
What’s Big Market? I’m glad you asked: it’s a massive interdimensional bazaar that visitors from our universe must wear special goggles and gloves to see and interact with. What’s a Mül Converter? Who cares, we’re having fun. It’s half a millennia in the future, so why has their strike team disguised their ship as a rusting school bus, complete with yellow paint and the usual square emergency exit in the ceiling? Who cares, it genuinely works, somehow, and we’re having fun. Characters wield non-lethal weapons that fire heavy, magnetized ball bearings or immobilizing goo — Valerian just happens to have a breathing mask that contains a laser spider for cutting restraints — several plot points revolve around a trio of information-dealing duck-faced gargoyles who finish each other’s sentences. It’s fun!
Valerian almost never rests — exactly like an adventure comic strip that needs another cliffhanger to keep readers coming back for the next installment. I could almost count the beats where we would have frozen on a shot of Valerian and Laureline’s apparent imminent demise and inserted the “tune in next week” bump of an action serial. Often, Valerian seems to treat itself as an excuse to show as many wild things to the audience as quickly as possible. And as long as it is showing you those wild things — and they are just as wild and creative and wondrous as any fan of The Fifth Element, Star Wars or Doctor Who could ask for — Valerian succeeds.
It’s when Valerian stops to explain anything, or when it pauses to give the relationship between its leads any screen time, that its interstellar flight starts to feel the inexorable pull of gravity. And beyond a certain point, Valerian traps itself in the stale atmosphere of its underwritten dialogue and its director’s love of some adventure fiction cliches better left to gather dust.
An extended section in the middle of the film takes a lengthy detour from the broader plot in order to further develop Valerian and Laureline’s relationship instead. This is adventure fiction, so it should come as no surprise that the character arc between Valerian and Laureline is whether or not they’re going to come together as romantic partners as well, and this arc is easily the film’s biggest flaw. Delevigne navigates Besson’s flat dialogue with respectable aplomb, but DeHaan can’t hold up his end of the bargain, turning a character who was clearly intended to be a dashing secret agent wooden and unfunny.
This same Valerian/Laureline-focused segment introduces the titular City’s version of a red light district and a race of alien kidnappers straight out of the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace playbook of uncomfortably designed aliens who can’t speak “proper” English. Also, it’s a criminal underuse of Rihanna, whose comedic timing and enthusiasm for her role is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale mini-arc.
Valerian’s themes and characters are trite — which, given its genre, it could totally have gotten away with, provided that the visuals and action were fun and the actors could elevate the dialogue with a good enough read of it. After all, The Fifth Element, when you drill down to it, is about the daring stance that war is bad and love will save us all — braced by Bruce Willis’ reliable leading man charm and bombastically memorable performances from the likes of Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman.
Valerian’s ideas are no more complicated than that. At one point a villain yells “Would you rather risk wrecking our economy for [the lives and entire homeworld of] a bunch of savages?” But, to my dismay, it didn’t provide enough distraction to make up for them.
The first half of Valerian is a creative romp that I would recommend to many people, its middle is a grimace-inducing detour, and its finale — though it has some points of interest — never quite recovers the film’s initial momentum. Folks looking for the spiritual sequel to The Fifth Element will find a lot of Valerian that feels familiar and delightful. But overall, we might be better with a rewatch of a 20-year-old classic than this new spin.