For anyone with a brief knowledge of the source material, to adapt the French science-fiction comic book series ‘Valerian and Laureline’ is a daunting and mammoth task – who better for the job than the director of The Fifth Element, Luc Besson. Having been a huge fan growing up, he was ideal to helm the project, and his enjoyment in doing so translates onto the screen, perhaps better than the comic-book itself translates.
Much of the film takes place on Alpha, which is the city of a thousand planets referred to in the films title. It is a multi-cultural and mass-populated space station where civilisations congregate and expand their knowledge, combining their species skills to fuel this cosmic society. It became so huge it had to be sent into space, and has become a condensed universe of systems. However, this harmonious concept is interrupted when the presence of an unknown energy source brewing in the middle of the colossal metropolis is detected. Special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are called to investigate the disturbance, and are caught up in a whirlwind of adventure, danger and moral decisions.
The film looks as good as one would expect from a $177 million dollar production, and dispenses some wonderfully colourful and imaginative imagery. Besson wants to provide audiences with a visual feast, and in some creative and innovative big-budget sequences does just that. Yet, a large proportion of the film is less impressive than many films that have preceded it. Adversely, some scenes feel reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, and at times it feels as though one could be watching Episode One: The Phantom Menace. If these films are to your acquired taste, then it will be a joyous engagement, but largely the style showcased in the controversial sci-fi revival was poorly received by many viewers. The visual worlds collide often too frequently and feel muddled when trying to engage with the narrative, which is often conflicted with sub-plots. In many occasions, it seems that the protagonists are side-tracked from the main plot, and as this continues it is difficult to ignore that the narrative is convoluted and fairly enervated – there is simply too much content forced into its run-time.
The glaring issue with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the casting of its two leads. Dane DeHaan has impressed audiences with his respective roles in Josh Trank’s found-footage superhero flick Chronicle and 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines, but it is hard to envision why he was chosen to play a daring and charismatic planetary swashbuckler – although a capable actor, he feels sorely miscast, and so does Cara Delevingne. The chemistry between the two is almost non-existent and makes the romantic elements to their relationship seem painfully strained. Although a growing romance is established early in the film, it is never believable, perhaps because their characters are lifeless and dull in harsh contrast to the films visual flare. There are glimpses of inviting characters, such as Ethan Hawke’s brief appearance as Jolly the pimp, but they feel underappreciated and wasted in hindsight. Providing much of the intrigue in the absence of compelling characters are the alien species the characters encounter, who feel as though they have stepped out of the troll market from Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Besson does offer audiences entertainment with an excess of visual worlds and creatures, but ultimately fails to nurture a connection between those watching, and the subjects of the film. When the trailer was released, it looked as though this science-fiction blockbuster may follow in the heavy steps of Disney’s disheartening disaster, John Carter, and while this may not be the case, it is hardly the success that fans of Besson’s earlier work had hoped for.