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Movie Review: "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets"

It may be visually stunning, but the movie remains two hours of pure cinematic disappointment. Contains spoilers for 'Valerian.'

By Anne MorleyPublished 6 years ago 5 min read
Valerian and Laureline.

I knew little of the plot of this movie when I went to see it. Something about a giant space station, a number of different aliens (including humans) that populated it, and the inevitable threat that would supposedly drive the storyline. So it’s safe to say that I went in with only a few preconceptions, ready to enjoy a science-fiction movie. Yet somehow, I left the theatre bitterly disappointed.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a pretty standard-fare space adventure romp from French director Luc Besson (who also directed The Fifth Element and more recently, Lucy). Taking place in the 28th century, it centres around a heavily-expanded International Space Station, which had to be pushed out of the Earth’s orbit when physics began to take its toll, and is now floating through space (covering a distance of around 300 million miles, which is made to sound impressive but isn’t even enough to get us out of the Solar System).

The movie’s opening sequence is impressive, following the International Space Station from its initial construction into the future. The nations of the world unite on the Station (later known as Alpha) followed by various alien races. All this takes place to the crooning Space Oddity, and is a strangely uplifting five minutes of human achievement and interplanetary cooperation.

Sadly, the film quickly goes downhill from there. The audience gets a cursory look at a visually stunning paradise of a planet, populated by a race of pale, humanoid creatures who flit around like drunken butterflies. Almost inevitably, the paradise is wiped out by unknown forces, and we are treated to the “this was a dream” trope as our titular hero wakes from a nap.

As the movie progresses, the audience gets treated to a nice bit of unnecessary exposition about the different races of Alpha (which surely the characters would already know) and where they live on the station. This was the first thing that really pulled me out of the story. A floating, presumably uniformly magnetic chunk of space-metal has a north and a south? Really?

The character of Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan, is unsympathetic and as the movie drags on, even dislikeable. A cocky, bad-boy space agent, he spends his time with his dour-faced work partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who does a poor job of playing hard to get. Despite the audience being shown none of Valerian’s redeeming characteristics, we are expected to support his clumsy attempts to woo Laureline—in the same way he’s wooed all his previous partners and put their pictures on some kind of wall of victory. But this time it’s different, because despite the lack of chemistry between the two actors and the lack of romance between the two characters, Valerian tries to make Laureline marry him.

Valerian faces no real consequences for his unending arrogance. When Laureline ends up in danger because Valerian failed to warn her that pretty butterflies mean traps (and why would they allow human-eating aliens to even live on Alpha?) the movie makes it clear that it’s her own fault. Similarly, when Valerian gives chase he punches through a number of specially controlled environments on Alpha (including underwater areas and the outside wall to the station) but the repercussions are never shown. Most jarringly, Valerian’s poor handling of a grab-and-run operation results in the brutal deaths of his entire backup team. This is barely treated as an inconvenience—Valerian and Laureline get away, seemingly unmoved by the fact that their teammates gave their lives to do so. And so the protagonist privilege continues.

Quite aside from the characters, the plot seems to rely entirely on flashy CGI. Besson leaves in a self-indulgent sequence where Rihanna shape-shifts, even though it’s little more than filler. Although she introduces the character of Bubbles (who exists purely to help Valerian move from Point A to Point B), Rihanna’s role is largely redundant. Bubbles dies at the end of the act; we see a vague semblance of emotion from Valerian, and then it’s back to the flirting game with Laureline.

Predictably, those humanoid paradise aliens were the main plot all along—or perhaps not so predictably, since nothing in this movie necessarily follows on from what came before. After their planet was nuked, the aliens survived in a broken spaceship, and in the space of three decades they’d gone from being a simple people to scientifically savvy. Somehow and for no apparent reason, the dead princess we saw in the first scene latched her soul onto Valerian’s across time and space. Not only was her choice questionable, but the audience is left befuddled as to why this was never mentioned until it started to become important.

It leaves a bad taste in the mouth to learn that this movie is yet another preachy case of the peaceful “noble savage,” where humanity must be the ones to save them from… you guessed it… humanity. At this point, it’s like budget Avatar. It’s revealed that humans destroyed their paradise planet during war, and the commander they kidnapped was responsible. Cue an inordinately long sequence where Valerian and Laureline agonise over whether or not to help them by giving them a “converter”—the last animal of its kind, which is vital for the aliens to jet off in their ship. Eventually they do so, and what follows is nothing but confusion.

With no explanation as to how they manage it, the aliens create a replica of their destroyed planet and leave in their newly constructed ship, seemingly happy with the fact the converter—their main power source—will die of old age one day. Even though Valerian, Laureline, and the commander are on the planet replica when the aliens leave, they somehow end up separate from the aliens. Valerian and Laureline inexplicably end up in another ship drifting through space, while the commander is even more inexplicably discovered aboard Alpha, cocooned spider-like by ropes hanging from the ceiling. There is no rhyme or reason to any of this, and certainly no sense of consistency.

At the end of the movie, Valerian gets his reward for being an insufferable jackass, as Laureline finally agrees to his marriage proposal and is treated to an engagement ring which probably contains enough power to explode a planet. Confused? That’s nothing compared to how the audience felt.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had potential. Unfortunately, it was kept from reaching that potential by a terrible script, wooden acting, and a plot that made no sense. It was visually appealing, but it just goes to show—CGI does not make up for low quality in every other area.

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About the Creator

Anne Morley

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