I cannot decide which is the more difficult type of review: positive without fawning, negative without being mean-spirited or ambivalent. The last type of review is where I find myself with the new movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:; utter and complete ambivalence. There is much to admire about the latest from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, among others) but there is also plenty of empty, sci-fi spectacle.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets stars Dane Dahaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Chronicle) as Agent Valerian who, alongside his partner Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delavingne), are investigating a monstrous and ever growing space station that is home to some form of every species in the universe. Our agents are on hand, however, to investigate a threat to the so-called city of a thousand planets.
That’s a straight-forward description of the plot of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets but this being a film by Luc Besson, the vaunted, experimental director of The Fifth Element, the production design becomes the true star. Besson has clearly been studying up on the work of visionary directorial colleagues like Peter Jackson and J.J Abrams whose more conventional style of blockbuster adventure gets a Besson upgrade right down to the futuristic costumes and bizarre yet realistic CGI aliens.
At 2 hours and 20 minutes, however, the cool factor doesn’t stand much chance of making Valerian a film worth fully recommending. Besson lingers over his cool factor a little too much and while Valerian never drags, one can definitely see where characters or even entire subplots could be jettisoned to lighten the film’s butt-numbing load. Ethan Hawke, for one, delivers an ungodly over the top cameo that plays little to no role in the overall plot beyond him being Ethan Hawke with a facial piercing.
Another significant issue for the film is the supposedly witty banter between stars Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevinge. While the characters are fine, their first encounter in the film is stilted and awkward as Laureline pointedly explains why she refuses to enter a romantic relationship with Valerian, a well-known playboy. The arc gets better as DeHaan’s Valerian keeps raising the stakes on their romantic entanglement but it’s not enough to rescue the film or redeem the seemingly failed chemistry of the actors.
That said, the final act of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is unquestionably rousing despite also being stunted by the predictability of the film’s main villain, a recognizable if not household name actor, and the trope of an indigenous people far more compassionate and intelligent than humans with whom our heroes quickly bond with per the request of the convenient, methodical storytelling devices of white, liberal guilt.
The final scenes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets raise the film to the level of passable because Luc Besson frames the final battle beautifully, with crisp timing, strong character moments for DeHaan and Delavingne and a group of aliens that, even as they act as a recognizable, symbolic trope, are unquestionably sympathetic. And then, of course, you have the incredible CGI which Besson has taken to so well as to create a seamless alien universe that, eventually, you can’t help but admire.
In the end, I remain ambivalent toward Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This is a film that I can kind of half-heartedly recommend because the good stuff is good enough and the bad stuff isn’t nearly bad enough to make the film unpleasant. Valerian is well-directed, the leads eventually do become engaging, overcoming the aching, creaky and forced romantic banter to emerge as heroes, and director Luc Besson remains a master of production design and special effects.