Can true love save the day? Well in the 1997 science fiction film The Fifth Element writer/director Luc Besson certainly thought so as that film revealed that love was the key ingredient to saving the universe and now 20 years later with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Luc Besson once again puts love center stage, if not exactly in saving if not the universe this time out but at least the day. Now we must ask ourselves, does the theme work this time out?
The movie opens with one of the best cinematic moments put to film as we see the International Space Station where over the years it becomes a place of peace where people of many nations can come to work and explore the future of humanity, and during this opening montage the visitors to the station start coming not from just Earth but from the far reaches of space. Mankind is not alone.
The President of the World State Federation (Rutger Hauer) explains to us that the ever expanding space station has reached such a point of weight and mass that it now poses a threat to the Earth and so now named “Alpha Station” it is must be sent off on a deep space mission of peace, and over time it becomes the home of thousands of alien species or as one could say it becomes the city of a thousand planets. The first five minutes of this film perfectly encapsulates our hopes for the future but unfortunately it also raises our expectations for the rest of the film that Luc Besson is unable to meet. The film jumps 400 years further into the future as we are introduced to a beatific seemingly primate alien race who seem at total harmony with their planet, and they do seem to have amazing beaches, but soon this idyllic world is destroyed when it is caught in the crossfires of a massive space battle.
Who could be responsible for such an atrocity you ask? Well if you are well versed in your science fiction analogs you’ll probably assume its evil white government men who are behind the wiping out of a primitive indigenous people, and you’d be right. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a simply gorgeous film but its themes are less than original and covers ground that has recently been well hammered over by James Cameron in his film Avatar. I will give Besson credit for at least giving us a more interesting alien race than what Cameron’s did incessantly dull Navi, but unfortunately the film does not escape having two truly dull characters as the titular heroe, and the title character of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is about as boring as one could get. Though he is teamed up with slightly more interesting of Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who is not only Valerian’s partner but also the film’s love interest.
The plot is your standard hero must retrieve space MacGuffin while various nefarious dark forces will try and stop him. Valerian and Laureline will run and shoot their way through various CGI created environments as they bounce between being ordered given to them by the Defence Minister (Herbie Hancock) and Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) who does everything but a twirl a moustache to clue us in that he is the bad guy. Subtlety has never been Luc Besson’s strong suit and none of the film’s characters venture far beyond their two dimensional natures that is required by the plot.
The hundreds of alien races and cool locations are sadly unable to overcome the fact that the film lacks any sense of urgency (towards the end they throw in the ticking clock but it doesn’t help much) and the pacing is all over the map. The biggest example of this would be when Laureline is captured a group of nasty aliens who make her dress up pretty so that they can have her brains for dinner, and it has nothing to do with anything. Just how bad does this sequence fail?
Let’s break it down:
• Laureline is supposed to be Valerian’s partnerm and a bit of a badass in her own right, but she is captured with ease and just sits around waiting to be rescued.
• Valerian needs a disguise for his rescue plan to work so he visits an exotic bar owned by Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke).
• We next sit through a “striptease” number by a shape-shifting dancer named Bubble who is played by Rihanna.
• Valerian wears the shape-shifter so he can sneak in to the alien clubhouse and start lopping of alien heads.
• Bubble is killed during their escape because the filmmakers thought we needed a bit of pathos and killing off this sweet innocent character would be the best way to achieve that.
This is a twenty-two minute detour that had no business being in a film that is two hours and twenty minutes long, not only was it a complete waste of screen time but it also undercut the character of Laureline while introducing and killing off one of few other interesting ones the film provided. This kind of scene may have worked great if you reading it in an issue of a comic book, and this film is based on the French comic Valérian and Laureline, but in a movie it just derails any momentum you had achieved up to that point.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has space battles, colorful villains, and frenetic chase through the underbelly of an amazing space station but at no point did I ever find myself fully invested. There was a lot of potential on screen, and every penny of the $180 million dollar budget is clearly on display, but when the film tries to hang itself on the emotional core of Valerian and Laureline’s relationship it fails and it fails hard. If you want to see one of the best looking science fiction films out there this is worth a look but if you are hoping for a solid story and good characters this is hard one to recommend. True love may have saved the day but it didn’t quite save the movie.