Science Fiction has long been a pet genre of mine, having produced some of my favourite media since I was a child. So I’m always keen for a new galaxy spanning experience. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a sprawling sci-fi adventure that began as a French comic series back in the seventies, and has found itself on the big screen at the hands of director Luc Besson – who was behind the cult classic sci fi movie The Fifth Element. The Valerian comic series was something of an innovator in its time, but how does it stack up as a movie in 2017?
The story focuses on Valerian and Laureline, two agents who are sent out to get to the centre of a mysterious threat looming in the middle of Alpha – the giant sprawling metropolis in the title of the movie. I do want to note before diving in that this review is coming from someone with no prior experience with the source material, so I can’t adequately comment on it’s accuracy to the original comics.
Visually Valerian is a truly stunning movie. Besson has a wonderful understanding of scope and filling the screen with life as we’ve seen before, and the advances in technology has allowed him to spread his wings even further. From the opening scenes on a dreamy beach to the extra-dimensional market to the heart of the titular city, there is a lot here for your eyes to feast on. The alien life all bounces off the screen, each carrying a certain charm and appeal to their design and execution. This isn’t quite Caesar from Planet of the Apes, but for fictional beings most of them feel like they share the world alongside the actors.
The story itself feels more like a series of interconnected moments that jumble together to form a coherent narrative. The scenes themselves all have their charm however, like the market scene I mentioned earlier which is a great introduction to both the characters and the world at large. There’s a light heartedness maintained through the movie which is challenged a bit towards the end, but it works well enough, though much of the humour doesn’t really land. There are a fair few times when it feels like an alternate version of The Fifth Element, and this is when the movie is at its best. When it’s not, the movie feels every minute of it’s two plus hour runtime – and even longer at that.
The acting from our two main protagonists is a bit inconsistent. Cara Delvigne has a fair share of moments where she feels one with the character and does a good job conveying Laureline – but then she’ll suddenly sound as if she’s reading off a script and following the directions exactly. It’s less prevalent as the movie goes on, which helps protect some of the key scenes but there are enough jarring moments that it does stand out. Dane Dehaan meanwhile decided to channel Keanu Reeves. Again there are moments where this works well, but it doesn’t feel like a natural performance and ultimately he isn’t as convincing as you’d hope. There’s also meant to be a romantic subplot here but it’s hard to really buy into it because the on screen chemistry just isn’t there.
The dialogue suffers early on from some very stilted and obvious exposition, dealing out personality traits like they’re filling out a dating profile and providing a verbal Wikipedia on certain locations. Much of it wasn’t even entirely necessary, either because the information is fairly superfluous to the core narrative or because the character’s actions are strong enough to show these traits anyway. It’s a shame, because some of the first moments of the movie forgoes dialogue but provides far more information and world-building without it feeling so clunky.
Outside of how great it looks, the best thing I can say about this movie is that it makes me want to go and read the comics it was based off of. Because it’s clear there some fantastic sci-fi to delve into, it’s just not necessarily in this adaptation. The film peaks in its incredible first couple of scenes, but falls back to Earth when the main plot really kicks in. There are fun moments, bright spots and undeniably cool sci fi elements that could potentially earn itself a decent fanbase, but a combination of unconvincing acting and a less than impressive script really drags this movie down where it matters – and if watched outside of the cinematic experience these flaws could become more apparent.