Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the sort of movie that you have seen many times before. That may have something to do with the fact that its source material, the French science fiction comic series, “Valérian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, influenced George Lucas on the original Star Wars, the apotheosis of this sort of movie; the science fiction adventure. But a lot of the films that found inspiration in Christin and Mézières’ work, directly or indirectly, do this film adaptation a disservice by way of their superiority.
The best of these films combine a strong visual aesthetic with a sense of fun. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, directed by Luc Besson, has an impressive command of the first and struggles to maintain the second despite its best efforts. There are enough imaginative designs in Besson’s film to fill a hundred different science fiction adventure films. The visual ideas in Valerian are so inventive that you may wish that they were attached to a film that deserved them. All the amazing computer generated images in the world will amount to nothing when other aspects of filmmaking are lacking.
Besson, who has an impressive number of notable schlocky action movies to his name as screenwriter, lets his imagination down with his own writing. The script of this movie is disastrous. Banter, which absorbs much of the film’s dialogue, is never more painful than when it is forced, and the strain in Besson’s words is palpable. That banter occurs primarily between the titular Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his sidekick/love interest Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Besson, reportedly a long-time fan of Christin and Mézières comics, clearly holds these two characters close to his heart. He never gives us any reason to do the same.
Valerian is the real culprit. Had the movie been called Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets and focused more on Delevingne, it would have been a move in the right direction. DeHaan as Valerian is woefully miscast. The script implies a charming rogue along the lines of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo with the masculine sex appeal of James Bond but DeHaan’s Valerian leaks the oily appeal of a brooding high schooler and has the charisma to match. Neither as charming as he thinks he is nor possessing as much bravado as the film thinks he does, Valerian is a huge problem.
Besson, who has experience in artistically opulent science fiction having directed The Fifth Element back in 1997, has invested a wealth of creativity into this film. It just doesn’t encompass all aspects of it. Sometimes, when one element of a film succeeds where others fail, the failings become more apparent. Individual sequences, such as an early one involving a marketplace that exists over multiple dimensions, are so inventive and fun you may bemoan the weaker aspects of Besson’s film more than you might had none of the film been any good.
Imagination is not the limit, contrary to what certain filmmakers may tell us in the wake of the acceleration in CGI technology. Supposedly, Besson decided that the Valerian adaptation he had in his head was possible after watching James Cameron’s Avatar. But possible in filmmaking is more important to a film than possible in technology, and simply transporting an image from a brain to a screen isn’t filmmaking, no matter how interesting that image may be. Film is more than image. Look what Christopher Nolan managed to achieve in his recent film, Dunkirk, by reviewing the traditional approach to war filmmaking. See how little Besson has achieved in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, with all those amazing images.