The 400-Word Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
By Sean Collier
July 24, 2017
I can think of few films which overcome serious flaws as completely as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. (The first serious flaw, of course, being that dreadful title.)
Based on the long-running French comic series Valérian and Laureline, Valerian is brought to vivid reality by Luc Besson, who also writes and directs. The title character (Dane DeHaan) is a daredevil federal agent representing Earth’s interests throughout the universe, a mashup of Han Solo and Keanu Reeves; his partner, fellow agent Laureline (Cara Delevingne), serves as guardian, collaborator and romantic interest.
Valerian receives a psychic message from a dying planet just as the pair is embarking on what should be a quick mission: confiscating contraband in an interdimensional market. The goods in question, however, are of greater interest than the agents have been led to believe, pointing both to a massive cover-up and Valerian’s vision.
First, the bad news: In the film’s most obvious deficit, DeHaan is simply awful. Recalling nothing so much as the parodic hero played by David Sandberg in the action spoof Kung Fury, this Valerian is a pale and awkward imitation of what a protagonist should be, never believable and always stilted. This is particularly stark in light of the remarkable, powerful performance from Delevingne, who carries the film.
Furthermore, the script could’ve used ... well, a writer other than Besson. His world-building and creativity are immaculate, but his dialogue is lacking. And the film’s uncomfortable treatment of its women does not end at Laureline’s expulsion from the title; a surprisingly strong performance from Rihanna is soiled by an introductory striptease, to name but one offense.
Yet: Valerian is completely irresistible. The visual language, comedic abandon and sheer audacity of this project cannot be denied; this is a universe more richly built than nearly any other, recalling those of the Star Wars and Mad Max series. (The comics were a stated influence on George Lucas, so that’s fitting.) The sheer amount of story rendered here is a firm rejoinder to the runtime-heavy, plot-light blockbusters of the ’10s. And in spite of Besson’s attempts to sideline her, Laureline is an instant icon.
I’m unabashedly rooting for Valerian to spark a franchise — which will not only allow me to revisit the world, but will give its creators a chance to correct the errors of this first installment. The film is messy, but still close to essential.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark