Film Review: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (FRA/USA, 2017) is pure visual escapism but hampered by unconvincing casting

When visionary filmmaker Luc Besson first picked up a copy of the French graphic novel series Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres he was inspired to bring that story to cinema screens and has been working towards that goal for most of his life. Coincidentally Mezieres was hired by Besson to assist him on the design of 1997’s The Fifth Element hailed as one of Besson’s greatest sci-fi film epics. And it’s somehow poignant that the year that film celebrates its 20th anniversary is the same year he releases another space opera which is even bolder, brassier, more colourful and expansive than its predecessor. However Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets might be more visually grandiose but it does have a few flaws that prevent it from surpassing its forebear.

We are introduced to special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who have been charged with retrieving a Mul converter, the last fat little alien possum of its kind that can replicate anything it eats. They return to Alpha Station, an enormous space station that houses millions of aliens and humans living together, however Alpha itself is under threat from something within and they must discover what it is before the “City Of A Thousand Planets” is destroyed.

Besson is a master at world-building, at creating cities, planets, environments, that almost surpass the imagination. We saw this in The Fifth Element, and here in Valerian it’s like Besson is a child in a toybox and he is let loose to run wild. With a lot of help from CGI and visual effects teams and a nearly $200 million budget too. The set pieces and locations are visually spectacular, there’s the planet Mul that looks a like a beach and seaside paradise. The most extraordinary is Big Market, a bazaar/marketplace that exists in two different dimensions and requires you to wear special goggles and gloves in order to interact and “shop”. This concept alone seems insane and yet Besson makes it seem perfectly normal, and executes it with ease and finesse. It’s in films like this that the 3-D experience really pops and is worth the bang because it adds that extra layer of depth and texture to really make these worlds feel real. Adding to all of this is Besson’s flair for fashion, though not quite as wild as getting Gaultier onboard, he still manages to bring some creative and colourful outfits for the cast to wear.

And unlike many other futuristic science-fiction films where we are dumped into a dystopia or a future where there are warring species and races. Here Besson brings us Alpha, a place where the coexistence of alien races and humans has brought a wealth of knowledge and cultural sharing and constant advances. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the narrative that Besson tries to deliver delves into some very real-world topics such as political and police corruption, refugees and racial genocide and the extinction of animal species. The gravity of all these issues is something our two lead characters seem to be well aware of and are striving to somehow fix but frustratingly it gets lost in translation. Most of which is due to the clunky or cliche dialogue, the ham-fisted exposition, and the awkward casting choices.

We are supposed to believe that DeHaan’s Major Valerian is a roguish but brilliant agent, with perfect scores and added ego to boot. However he comes across as cocky and at times incompetent which doesn’t seem convincing of a high ranking officer or a space hero. It’s Sergeant Laureline, played by Delevingne, who’s cool and calm under pressure that saves Valerian’s bacon on a couple of instances and she outshines her costar easily. This isn’t entirely surprising considering Besson has a knack for bringing strong female characters to the screen, so it’s a shame that Delevingne’s conscripted to have this completely unbelievable and forced chemistry with her agent partner that isn’t convincing at all. And I swear there was a moment where it felt like our villain could’ve shouted “And I would’ve gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids” because both DeHaan and Delevingne look about 20 years too young and it feels somewhat Scooby-Doo-esque. The supporting cast also feel a little bland and underdeveloped, Clive Owen’s Commander Arun Fillit is shady AF from the beginning and Ethan Hawke playing a guyliner wearing cowboy pimp was kinda boring. Rihanna gets a great turn at playing a shapeshifter alien pole dancing prostitute/”artist” but the moment she pairs up with Valerian she falls flat in the voice acting department when they have to CGI in her alien body.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is world building on a colossal new scale and makes excellent use of 3D, costuming, animatronics and CGI to build an entire universe that you really want to be a part of. But it’s mired by weak casting choices, and lead characters that we aren’t really invested in. It’s not as quippy or catchy as Besson’s precursory space opera but if you’re after some visual escapism then Valerian will hit the spot, just strap in for the ride and forget about everything else.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 137 minutes

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets screens in Australian cinemas from 10 August 2017 through Entertainment One Australia