Valerian movie review: 1000 planets but no room for a plot
Luc Besson’s first film since 2014’s Lucy, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was meant to be a labour of love -- a visually stunning ode to the French comic Valerian and Laureline he grew up reading. And it certainly is that, as Besson goes all out to create an entire universe, with countless creatures and cultures, landscapes and languages.
However, sometimes less is more, and shine does not mean substance. Which is why, despite the visual spectacle that Valerian unfailingly provides, the film bores and underwhelms for large parts.
While the movie's aesthetic is stunningly imaginative, its plot is quite the opposite. The heart of the conflict lies in the story of the Pearls, an alien race suspiciously similar to Avatar's Na’vi. Like the Na’vi, the Pearls also live in harmony with the planet, mining sea pearls and feeding them back to the planet to keep everything in balance.
However, their planet meets an abrupt end as it becomes collateral damage in a space war. Their existence all but wiped out, the plot kicks off with the movie’s protagonist, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) having dreams about the destruction of the Pearls’ planet.
Valerian, a special agent of the police force, and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are then sent on a mission to retrieve one of the creatures Valerian saw in his dream, as well as a pearl like the ones the Pearls treasured. This mission sets them on a collision course with the remnants of the Pearls, unmasking a thoroughly predictable 'secret' plot along the way.
All style, no substance
Where James Cameron tried to create a whole new world in Avatar, Besson sets out to paint an entire universe. In this grand attempt, he uses everything at his disposal, creating a final canvas that is visually overwhelming.
Everything is larger than life, original even if quirky, and unapologetically bright. The action is swift, rushing toward the viewer almost incessantly, resulting in sensory overload.
The world Besson has created is impressive, but in trying to showcase all of it, he almost manages a numbing effect, where no specific instance truly stands out.
Besson always knew the special effects were the movie's biggest strength, and so even the movie's trailer mostly focused on this. Sadly, that may not just be because of the visual prowess of the film, but rather its dull plot, penchant for cliches and stale dialogue that don't make for great viewing.
The 'white saviour saves peaceful natives from white oppression’ idea is old. Even when it happens in space. The movie builds on this lazy premise with similarly lazy plot development, leaving nothing to the imagination. The plot's many obstacles and diversions also seem unimportant to the larger story, serving only to deliver more special effects.
The paper-thin mystery Valerian finds himself embroiled in is laughably simple, with viewers knowing exactly what comes next at all times.
Forgettable acting and strange cameos
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne simply aren't ready to carry such a big budget title yet. The two young actors aren't helped by cliche-ridden dialogue and utterly senseless character development, but their general lack of any real chemistry leaves one with the feeling that none of that would have mattered anyway.
Considering most people aren't fans of the comics, it was necessary for Delevingne and DeHaan to deliver strong performances in order for audiences to buy into their characterisation. They don't manage to do that, and their on-screen romance is one-dimensional and uninspiring.
Pop singer Rihanna also makes a bizarre cameo. She stars as a shape-shifting alien who spends the majority of her screen time shape-shifting into sexy avatars of Rihanna while dancing to Rihanna’s music. It comes across more as a desperate act of self-promotion.
John Goodman and Ethan Hawke have strange, fringe cameos as well that absolutely waste their potential as Besson prefers to shine the spotlight on the young leads.
Only Clive Owen really does much acting in the movie, essaying the role of the film's principal antagonist. Even then, he only ever appears in bits and bobs.
Should you see it?
With Dunkirk and Planet of the Apes still running, you'd be a fool to watch Valerian instead. Both are visually amazing movies, and both also have better plotlines and acting. Watch Valerian only if you've already seen everything else and just have a hankering for some big-screen viewing.