Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson’s mega budget adaptation is, indeed, a visual feast. The effects work is dazzling, but it’s all for naught when your human cast have no chemistry or a clear narrative to anchor themselves to.

Kicking off in a timeline that starts outside of Earth at a space station nowadays, with the now overdone use of David Bowie’s Space Oddity to score it, we elapse through near two centuries as the station grows and grows with new alien races and technologies to become Alpha – the City of a Thousand Planets. Too big to remain in Earth’s gravitational pull, Alpha is set adrift in the Universe…

Meanwhile, on the planet Müll (I have no idea why this alien planet has German spelling), the tropical sun loving hippy distant cousins of Star Wars Episode II‘s Kimino cloning scientists (You know, those lanky white beings who use salad tossers on Leia when she spits out the kids in Episode III) have their entire planet destroyed by a war that they have not participated in.

Some 40 years later, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Lorelei (Cara Delevingne) are two space government spies who are sent on a secret mission to recover a ‘converter’ from black market traders. Valerian, who is somewhat smitten with Lorelei, is also troubled by visions of a paradise destroyed and when his seemingly simple snatch and grab mission broadens out and relates to the lost planet of Müll, things get interesting.

Those three paragraphs there are a much more lucid and succinct way in setting up the plot of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Besson is so intent in throwing so much information, both visually and world building wise, that it’s quite easy to get lost in the process. And what a world it is, no expense has been spared on this virtual computer game of a film with echoes of The Fifth Element ruminating throughout.

Whilst Besson might make you eyes pop with wonder at the visual spectacle, he doesn’t have the same success in the real story. And essentially that’s the only problem the film has – humans.

Try as they might, neither DeHaan or Delevingne have the screen presence or chemistry to pull off these young agents in love/action heroes. They’re characters aren’t well drawn, nor are they particularly interesting in any measure. Clive Owen sleepwalks through his scenes, he looks old, bored and tired so when his subplot comes to fruition it’s a non event. Had these roles been in the hands of more dynamic actors, this would’ve really been something to cheer about.

Rihanna and Ethan Hawke fair better with their late appearances.

Visually astounding but lacking the heart to really bring it home, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets certainly aims to blow your mind but only gets you half way there.