Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an awesomely terrible film. Awesome in the sense that this is, in all honesty, the most visually dazzling science fiction movie since 2009’s Avatar; terrible in the sense that it has a shockingly unfocused, poorly written, tonally ajar story that drags the whole enterprise down. Not since 2011’s Immortals have I seen such a beautiful movie that was so otherwise in shambles. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film is set in a distant future where mankind’s continued dedication to the space program has brought them into contact with alien life and eventually leads to the rise of an interplanetary, Star Trek-like civilization (the opening flashback depicting all of this is a well-done sequence). The story concerns two government agents played by Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne as they investigate a shady black market deal that eventually unravels a larger mystery involving the coverup of a lost alien civilization. Much of the running time is spent on Alpha (the titular city of a thousand planets), a space station where a diverse array of creatures from a plethora of worlds now reside.
This movie is filled to the brim with amazing imagery and interesting ideas. The creatures, including giant psychic jellyfish, mischievous duck men, bioluminescent butterflies, and shapeshifting cephalopods, are thoroughly imaginative and the CGI used to bring them to life is photo-real. There are some dazzling effects sequences in the movie; the highlight being the most clever and original use of dimension hopping ever seen on film. Additionally, the color palette is pleasingly bright and saturated and the camera work is dynamic and inventive. In short, this is a wonderful movie to look at.
Unfortunately, when you start digging below the surface, it begins to fall apart. The story is noticeably unfocused, underdeveloped, and incoherent. The depiction of human beings in the movie illustrates this. The opening of the film strongly implies that mankind has progressed towards a more peaceful, higher existence through its contact with other life but the rest of the picture proceeds to contradict that with a strong anti-colonialism / military-industrial-complex theme that suggests mankind hasn’t progressed at all. Granted, that contrast can certainly work (and it makes for a good message in theory) but it requires the film investing the proper screen time to explore it, and that doesn’t happen here. This movie’s use of its run time on the whole is rather problematic and surprisingly wrong-headed, resulting in a very hobbled narrative with no real depth.
In my opinion, there are two issues with the story that cause this problem. The first (and most glaring) is that the narrative takes a forty-five minute diversion from the main thread to instead focus on a bizarre side plot involving sexual slavery that doesn’t ever really amount to much or seem to affect the larger story and is no better developed thematically. It could have been cut entirely and the audience wouldn’t have missed anything significant. The second reason, is that, despite the huge stakes and scope of the story, our two leads are overly preoccupied with a pedestrian romance that is both rudimentary and laughably cliché. Imagine the most stock romantic comedy of all time and that’s what exists here between these two characters. It feels so out of place in a big science fiction film. Making it worse is that DeHaan and Delevingne don’t exactly have great chemistry as a couple; they are both incredibly good looking, but their attempts to sell genuine emotion and affection largely fall flat.
Beyond that, the movie is a tonal mess. It is very earnest and straight-faced during the (few) times when it tries to tackle its big themes; but much of the rest of the time it is remarkably silly in terms of dialogue, site gags, and patently bizarre moments. During that weird forty-five minute diversion, for example, a campy vaudeville musical number takes place featuring singer Rihanna (yes, that Rihanna) as an alien named Bubble performing a strip tease in which she repeatedly changes form. It’s so goofy, in fact, that I’d almost want to believe that the story was intentionally constructed as a farce in order to mock the melodrama of space operas, except that it clearly still wants you to take its critiques on colonialism and sexual slavery seriously (however undeveloped those themes are). Unfortunately, combining such weighty themes with such inanity and parody just doesn’t work.
To sum up, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a shadow without substance kind of movie. It looks amazing but doesn’t function as a satisfactory piece of story telling. I really wish this had been better, because putting a half-way decent narrative with such spectacular visuals would have really made something special. As is, if you’re interested in two hours of eye candy, then this movie is worth a watch. For everyone else, I’d recommend seeing something else.