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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Movie Review

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) movie poster Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Theatrical Release: July 21, 2017 / Running Time: 137 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Luc Besson / Writers: Luc Besson (screenplay); Pierre Christin, Jean-Claude Mézières (comic book)

Cast: Dane DeHaan (Major Valerian), Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline), Clive Owen (Commander Arun Filitt), Rihanna (Bubble), Ethan Hawke (Jolly the Pimp), Herbie Hancock (Defence Minister), Kris Wu (Sergeant Neza), Sam Spruell (General Okto-Bar), Alain Chabat (Bob the Pirate), Rutger Hauer (President of the World State Federation), Peter Hudson (Captain Crowford), Xavier Giannoli (Captain Norton), Elizabeth Debicki (voice of Emperor Haban-Limaï), John Goodman (voice of Igon Siruss)


The filmmaking career of Luc Besson hasn't made a ton of sense. As a young man in the 1980s, he emerged in France's film scene as writer-director-producer of Subway and (La Femme) Nikita. Then, he made his English language debut on 1994's Léon: The Professional, an original New York-set action thriller that holds up remarkably well.
Léon was not a huge hit at the box office, but it garnered enough respect to secure a substantial $90 million production budget for The Fifth Element, a 1997 summer sci-fi movie starring Bruce Willis and others. Though it performed well in foreign markets and has risen to at least cult classic status over the past twenty years, it disappointed domestically and that put a damper on Besson's Hollywood career.

His follow-up, 1999's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc starring Fifth Element breakout actress Milla Jovovich, flopped everywhere. After that, Besson took a break from directing, while continuing to regularly write and produce a variety of action films, including The Transporter and Taxi, which was remade in the US starring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah. Following some further commercial success (as a writer and producer of the Taken movies), Besson returned to directing and scored a hit on 2014's Lucy. Now, for just the second time in twenty years, he's got another big summer sci-fi movie.

Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) try to blend in on alien planet in "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets."

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like a made-up movie. How can a movie this big exist without extremely popular source material, major movie stars, or one of the select few clout-carrying filmmakers? But I ensure you it is a real movie, produced independent of any of the major studios with a real, staggering $180 million budget and little STX Entertainment distributing in North America. In its first three years in existence, STX has had exactly one of its twelve films gross $100 million domestically (Bad Moms) and, despite the hefty price tag, it doesn't seem likely to repeat the feat on this.

Adapted by Besson alone from the Valérian and Laureline French comics series that began in 1967, the film opens with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" playing over a montage showing how diplomatic relations between humans and aliens have evolved from the recent past into the mid-22nd century. We then settle on a place where aliens resembling elongated humans with iridescent white skin live in harmony amidst little critters that poop out pearls as the foundation of their ecosystem. An attack, playing out with the alien dialogue mostly unsubtitled, kills the one character with whom we were to identify.

Then we're on a beach with Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two young, attractive agents who travel through time and space to maintain order in the universe. Their first mission has them journeying to a tourist trap where a desert wasteland becomes a jam-packed marketplace once a helmet and gloves are worn. Valerian sneakily breaks up a tense transaction going on between a nefarious criminal (voiced by John Goodman) and those peaceful alien beings.

After some close calls, Valerian, whose marriage proposal to Laureline has largely been deflected, escapes with one of those pearl-pooping critters. The law enforcers have some general universal unrest to settle, although naturally that is a mission that takes them both on a variety of adventures in an assortment of creative locales.

The platypus-like Doghan Daguis dispense information that is divided between the three...for a fee.

You've got to give Valerian credit for its ambitions.
Few sci-fi movies get to build universes from the ground up the way that George Lucas did on the original Star Wars, a big risk that continues to reap extravagant rewards. Sure, superhero movies like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy get to have fun playing in space and with time. But this is more on the order of Avatar, with Besson having far less past success in the genre to his name than James Cameron did.

As such, you kind of expect Valerian to be gloriously terrible, miscalculation on the order of Delgo or Battlefield Earth. It's not, though. It's got problems, of course, on a number of levels. But it's never a complete mess or any less than moderately entertaining.

Technically, the movie lives up to expectations. Any movie with a 9-figure budget is going to be called out for inferior visuals. And that alien race which features at the beginning of the film suffers from problematic design. But that is soon forgotten, as we are immersed in tasteful and complex settings, like the aforementioned other dimensional marketplace and a lively pleasure district where Wyclef Jean's "We Trying to Stay Alive" is put to great use.

Valerian does not commit the common mistake of getting too wrapped up in effects and action, but it does still do the Cameron thing and wear out its welcome. Its 137-minute runtime is excessive and you feel like things are wrapping up when they should be, only for the movie to continue for another twenty minutes.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the cast. In a world of aliens and officers, those two leads are so important at having audiences identify with them. But DeHaan and Delevingne both disappoint. DeHaan, who has shown promise in the past, still looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, he sounds and acts more like a present-day Keanu Reeves and it's tough to take him even remotely seriously as a hero. Delevingne, who has drawn complaints for her work in Suicide Squad, is no better than usual here, although she doesn't fall as short as DeHaan.

An alien runs to safety as her planet is attacked in "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets."

The cast includes Ethan Hawke as a smooth-talking pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien who gets to look and sound like Rihanna in a sort of erotic performance full of costume changes.
There's also Clive Owen as a human commander whose white sideburns suggest some evil, "Rockit" musician Herbie Hancock as a mostly screen-based Defense Minister, and Blade Runner's Rutger Hauer in a small role that gives him the "And" credit. That performers of such disparate backgrounds come together somehow feels oddly appropriate for a head-scratcher of an internationally financed movie that you kind of can't believe is opening in 3,400 theaters in July 2017.

Already being hammered less by critics than its appearance would suggest, perhaps Valerian can also exceed its low North American commercial expectations, but I doubt it. With the highly acclaimed Apes, Spider-Man, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, and The Big Sick all competing for tickets and repeat business, plus Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk opening at the same time, Valerian doesn't do enough to stand out in a good way or make a case for you spending money on it.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: DunkirkA Ghost StoryWar for the Planet of the ApesSpider-Man: Homecoming
Dane DeHaan: ChronicleLawlessThe Amazing Spider-Man 2Kill Your DarlingsDevil's Knot
Cara Delevingne: Suicide SquadPan
In TimeAvatarThe Adventures of Tintin

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Reviewed July 21, 2017.

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