Oh, boy do the critics hate this one! Trust me, they are wrong. While Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets probably has more of a niche appeal than more conventional SciFi, I am happy to admit to being in that niche.
It’s Space Opera in the vein of Flash Gordon or Star Wars, or TV’s Babylon 5. Beautifully filmed, with a very human story at its core, it’s not a perfect film, but it is well worth seeing if you enjoy this kind of fantastical, swashbuckling science fiction.
The film opens with real life footage of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking, then something from the International Space Station (or possibly Mir, I’m not certain) then continues imagining the future of human space exploration in a montage of humans meeting increasingly weird alien races and shaking their hands/paws/tentacles/appendages. We are told that the space station Alpha, built as a venue for such meetings, has become so large it threatens to fall out of orbit, so it is jettisoned out of the solar system into space where it can continue to grow and thrive. This, then, is the “City of a Thousand Planets” – an ever-expanding space station made up of sections with environments suitable for every known alien race. We are introduced, quickly, to several of them before the action skips to a new race on a beautiful beach.
This sequence is stunning. From the aliens themselves, elvishly delicate in appearance, to the setting like a Caribbean island paradise inhabited by creatures strange and cute, to the shocking way the scene develops, it really is great filmmaking.
Then we switch again, meeting our heroes at last. Valerian and Laureline are a kind of intergalactic Steed and Mrs Peel, and we meet them on a mission to retrieve stolen property from an interdimensional market. Now this sequence does get a little confusing and possibly this is where some of the negative reviews are coming from. The “market” exists in another dimension which you need special technology to interact with, so we have two landscapes overlaid on each other and various characters visible, invisible or partly visible as the action goes on. It is weird and imaginative but confusing and ultimately not relevant to the main plot; I think the film would have been better served by a more straightforward chase sequence.
Finally we return to Alpha, now a space station the size of a planet, but considerably less elegant than, say, the Death Star. The pace lags a bit as we are introduced to a range of new characters, and informed of a piece of alien sabotage that threatens the entire station, but then a dignatory is kidnapped and a new chase begins. To tell more of the plot would be too spoilery so I will refrain.
Let’s talk about the performances. Neither of the stars is going to win an Oscar any time soon, but they aren’t wooden, just a bit miscast. Dane DeHaan proved in A Cure For Wellness that he can act and his performance here is good, it’s just not outstanding. It needed an older actor, I think. With the string of past lovers and the flirtatious banter between Valerian and Laureline, the role needed someone like a young Harrison Ford or a Chris Pratt. DeHaan is just too…white bread to pull off the roguish scoundrel-hero the script wants him to be. Cara Delevingne does better, but there are lines she just doesn’t give the right spin. When she says “are you telling me you had a woman inside you?” (that’s not the exact line but it’s close) the audience should be roaring with laughter. Instead it falls flat, the innuendo completely absent. But in other places she does really well. There’s a sequence in which some alien bigwig is trying loads of different foods and hates them all. Enter Laureline, bearing what looks like a pair of giant lemons. Her impatience with the whole thing, followed by [spoilers] the slow realisation that she’s not the waitress, she’s the food, [end of spoilers] is perfectly played.
The standout performance is Rihanna as a shape-shifting space hooker enlisted by Valerian to help in his mission. You don’t see much of her because she’s mostly not in a human shape, but her voice acting is superb (though I recognised her voice from her role in Home which was a wee bit distracting) and she does have the right delivery on the funny lines. Other notables are Ethan Hawke as a space pimp, Clive Owen as the morally dubious Commander and Elizabeth Debicki doing a perfect imitation of Cate Blanchett as the alien emperor Haban-Limaï.
That last feels like a deliberate shout-out to LOTR’s Galadriel, and there are other moments that feel like homages to the greats of the genre. I caught subtle echoes of Star Wars, Serenity, Avatar, Blade Runner and other moments that feel familiar but I can’t place. But none feel like copycatting, just conscious or unconscious homage.
What doesn’t work? Well…I guess we are supposed to read the main couple as being in love but the leads decidedly don’t have that kind of chemistry. The relationship worked as professional colleagues with a close bond but not as potential lovers. I also found some confusion in the way rank and authority worked in the film. For example Valerian’s rank is major; Laureline is a sergeant. Yet she’s very much in charge. I could accept that as a function of partnership, each playing to their strengths and he willingly taking direction from someone of lower rank, but there needed to be at least one moment where he pulls rank and smacks her down, and there isn’t. The only moment where he emphasises her rank it’s almost a joke. Also was it really necessary for Laureline’s armour to have two great, shiny panels over her tits? I think we’d have noticed she’s a girl without that subtle hint. The sentient ship? Again, I think the ship (“Alex”) is supposed to be intelligent and self aware, but the film doesn’t quite pull it off (or if I’m wrong, it gives the wrong impression). And the political stuff, while necessary, did slow the pace. Also the villain, when eventually revealed, was a bit low key for this genre of film.
But overall, despite the faults and missteps, I found it an enjoyable film, visually stunning and with some important things to say about politics, race, choice and the importance of owning our mistakes.