Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Was a Perfect Storm of Beautiful Visuals & Bland Casting
Last night, for the first time, I sat down and watched Luc Besson’s 2017 space-action-film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The film was an adaptation of the popular comic book series and ended up being a huge bomb. Due to a production budget of around $180 million, it is both the most expensive European and independent film ever made, and the box office total of $225 million worldwide didn’t make the film a success. Still, in unpacking Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, we see how great visuals and an engaging story can be torn apart by terrible leads.
Valerian takes us to the world in the 28th century. A montage played to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” shows how throughout time, the people of Earth, and eventually aliens, came together to and transformed the former International Space Station into a traveling city called Alpha, which is inhabited by millions of species from thousands of planets.
Naturally, the United Human Federation came together to form … a police division to preserve peace through the galaxy. This includes our leads, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne).
I don’t think I’ve seen such mismatched chemistry outside of The CW in a long time. Both DeHaan and Delevingne are bad in this movie, but it is different kinds of bad. DeHaan is playing a vain, swave, playboy Star-Lord type, but he does not pull it off at all. It feels forced and just a misuse of DeHaan’s talents. Delevingne has never been a strong actress and struggles to really make any aspect of her role work, but since their “romance” and banter are a huge part of the movie, it is hard to move past the fact that it is bad and in your face the whole time.
The conflict of the film is actually good. A race of aliens called Pearls from the Planet Mül have their planet devastated when debris falls onto their world. Some manage to escape, but six million Pearls, including the Princess, Lihö-Minaa, perish. With her death, Lihö-Minaa sends a telepathic message to Valerian, who has just been sent on a mission to retrieve the last “Mül converter.”
Now, this is an interesting compelling story, and the parts of Valerian that deal with Mül are great. They call out genocide, racism, and imperialism. It tears apart the military system and its over-reliance on protocol. When it is revealed who is responsible for the destruction of Mül, which is telegraphed so hard it feels like it must be a red herring, even that leads to an on-the-nose, but frankly refreshing confession that he did it because he didn’t think the people of Mül were worth protecting.
“Our council saw fit to protect citizens first and foremost. Is that not its duty? And mine. And yours! Or would you rather risk wrecking our economy for the sake of a bunch of …” and the unsaid word there is filled it by Laureline: “Savages?”
There is some really great stuff there, and as someone who has issues with the Federation in Star Trek, I was like, Yess, content.
The problem is that the entire film fluctuates between a few good moments to entire rescue sequences that, if not for the visuals, feel like they are part of a B-movie, not something with a budget this high. It tries to fit in so much to show off the worlds it built, but picked two inept avatars for the adventure.
And yes, while that Rihanna sequence is hot and awesome, she also dies helping to protect the two white leads like a magical space Negro, and that is just annoying.
It sucks that between this and Jupiter’s Ascending we saw two really visually compelling science fiction movies just go down in flames, due in part to bad casting. The right lead can save a project, and sadly, Valerian had two duds.
The opening sequence is great.
(image: EuropaCorp Distribution)
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