Film Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ Creates An Immersive New World

Give filmmaker Luc Besson some credit. It really does look like every bit of the $180 million budget for “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is right there on the screen. No expense is spared in creating a brand new world and letting you loose in it. Now, science fiction junkies and lovers of Besson’s “The Fifth Element” will likely delight in this. Those hoping for summer blockbuster fare with a more realistic and stripped down approach will roll their eyes. In almost every way, this film goes big. It’s a high risk / high reward tactic, and while there are some blemishes, the final product does work.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is pure spectacle, through and through. The rare new release absolutely worth seeing in 3D, it’s a movie that wants you to be in awe of it. It never approaches the feeling of wonder that something like “Avatar” pulled off, but moments come close. The visuals are splendid and a sight to behold, while some of the early action sequences are truly impressive. If the third act can’t quite wrap everything up in a completely satisfying way (and the second half isn’t as strong as the first half), it still does more than enough right to warrant a recommendation.

Set in the 28th century, we’re given a glance at the wonders of the universe and then quickly introduced to Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The pair are a team of special agents tasked with maintaining order throughout the human territories of the galaxy. Valerian is a cocky womanizer, one with his eyes on his partner, while Laureline is far more traditional. They make a good team, however, and that will be necessary for their latest mission. That mission will bring them to the city of Alpha, which once was the International Space Station. Now, it’s an always growing station where all kinds of species congregate and share all sort of information with each other.

Given an assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark for Alpha, though what they find is not what either of them expected. An unknown threat threatens the city, and if it’s not stopped, much more than just Alpha is at risk. As Valerian and Laureline investigate, each new discovery makes them question more and more about everyone surrounding them. This is a sci-fi epic, so expect space battles, exotic creatures, and at least one race against time. You know the drill.

If there’s one notable flaw here in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” it’s the cast. Both Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne have been impressive in the past, but they underwhelm here. The movie doesn’t give them incredibly well fleshed out characters to inhabit, but never expands on the tropes their given. Delevingne comes close to to sheer force of will and spunk, but DeHaan actually seems bored at times. He seems better suited to darker roles, like with “Chronicle“. The aforementioned Herbie Hancock basically puts in a cameo, but it’s nice to see him, all the same.

The rest of the cast does have some familiar faces (or voices) that pop up briefly. Those include Rihanna, John Goodman, Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Clive Owen. Also on hand are Sam Spruell and Kris Wu, among others, though they all fade into the background. DeHaan and Delevingne don’t shine through, so how could they? This is not a film meant to showcase acting.

Besson is adapting a French comic book, but for all intents and purposes, this feels quite original. As the writer and director here, it is easily recognizable as his own work. The dialogue is on the nose and occasionally wooden, featuring some howlers. The direction is fluid, with strong action set pieces. The aforementioned “The Fifth Element” shares DNA with this one for sure, but so to do other Besson efforts like “Leon” and even “Lucy“. He’s at his best here when introducing a new world or a new creature. Once we get to Alpha and stay there, things become slightly less interesting.

Again, the visuals are something else. Besson and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast showcase the effects in a way that feels right. They’re truly awe inspiring at times, so it makes sense in the film to spotlight and call attention to them. The imagination put into each frame is meant to bring out childlike wonder and in turn spur on imagination, buoyed by a score by composer Alexandre Desplat. In the same way that “Star Wars” did that for a younger generation, at least some children will get the same thing from “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”. A decade from now, at least a few future visual effects artists will cite this movie as an inspiration.

If you like Besson and especially if you like sci-fi, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is for you. There’s a chance this flick absolutely flops, but it deserves a better fate. Ambition like this should be rewarded, at least in some small way. Give this film a shot if effects driven spectacle usually makes your eyes widen. If so, you just might be in for a treat here…

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is distributed by STX Entertainment and opens in theaters on July 21.

GRADE: (★★★)


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72 points
Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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