Film Review: "Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets" is a dazzling, hollow spectacle
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter Valerian) is a technically proficient movie with a plot you can't care much about.
Director Luc Besson (he of The Fifth Element fame) colours his boldly optimistic vision of the far future with every crayon in the box. It's certainly a wonder to behold for a couple of minutes (especially when there's no dialogue to break the spell). But when it comes to the characters who populate his canvas, he opts for hastily scrawling them with a ball-point pen.
When I think of Blade Runner, another sci-fi epic with its own distinct world, I think of how its lonely, socially maladjusted characters saw the rain-soaked, oppressive skyline; from the overcrowded streets, from the strews of garbage, from those hideously cramped apartments.
I think of a point of view.
Valerian, though comparable in its visual imagination to Blade Runner, is already proving difficult to remember because its perspective often glides around, untethered by a purpose except to try and dazzle us with the next cool expensive thing. Only a computer sees the world this way. Though its action scenes are often nicely staged, past the first hour they just blend together as so much fury and noise, because what, in a final analysis, is there to connect to?
Amusingly – unintentionally so – the discount store dialogue and 10c characters surreally juxtapose against the visual splendour and grandeur on display. To wit, Valerian's story kicks off on a paradise planet inhabited by lithe, graceful humanoids who harvest pearls from these little critters who appear to shit out said pearls. I don't know, it doesn't matter. Their peaceful existence is blown to hell when warring spaceships violently enter their planet's atmosphere. It's effective, audacious. However we're then artlessly yanked to the next scene, where our space-cop heroes Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are hanging by the beach, partaking in an alien's conception of humans wittily bantering and playing the bad romance game of will-they-won't-they. It's embarrassing to listen to. It's Anakin and Padme bad, folks. It's fascinating. Then it quickly becomes irritating, tiresome.
It doesn't help that DeHaan and Delevigne are completely out of their depth and charisma-free as a couple of dynamic, seen-it-all cops. DeHaan is meant to be the roguish Han Solo type, but he delivers his lines with a spaced out Keanu Reeves monotone and looks every bit the wayward junkie son of Leonardo DiCaprio. Delevigne fares better as Strong Female Protagonist, but only in the sense that she's not quite as embarrassing.
Together they're insufferable, passionlessly rattling off each other's history like they're reading from the Valerian™ trading cards. That is, when they're not going through the motions of this clear-as-mud story that involves the little critters who shit the precious pearls, the race of lithe, graceful humanoids, and some apocalyptic visions that Valerian himself is conveniently the recipient of. It's structured like a disposable video game from 1998. We can only try to patiently wade through the atrocious connective tissue of characters talking about boring plot stuff or boldly proclaiming their feelings, hoping in vain for something cool to occur during the action scenes. That Valerian is well over 2 hours long feels like some cruel joke.
Great actors Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, and pop singer Rihanna make appearances here too. Clive Owen is desperately trying to bring some gawd dang respectability with his pissed off military man routine, Ethan Hawke seems to know what kind of movie this is and acts accordingly, and Rihanna is a sex worker/performer named Bubble. Okay.
Everything about Valerian suggests an artist who is completely free to do and indulge in whatever the hell they want - and they're ecstatic about it. Fuck it, there's something kind of heartening about a filmmaker dispensing with a purposefully even-handed and careful tone that defines so many of today's blockbusters, even the great ones. But that it winds up as empty and cynical as any made-by-a-committee movie is what murders it.