As flashy and colorful as the special effects may be in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, they can’t cover up the film’s terribly written script and the unconvincing relationship between the film’s two leads. The science fiction actioner’s director, famed French filmmaker Luc Besson, adapted the French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières to create a dense movie with plenty of action set pieces that don’t always click together in tone. Worst of all, the script tries to prop up sentiment with exposition. Finally, the couple that should be the film’s heart never rise above sneering at one another. Through the sneers, the male (of course) insists on swooning the female, betraying any believable connection. Ultimately, this leaves little to invest in, so if you go out to see this movie, prepare yourself for a merely superficial romp through sci-fi tropes painted in kaleidoscopic effects.
The plot concerns itself with the care of an exotic creature from the extinct planet Mül. The last of its kind in the universe, it’s an armadillo-looking critter with a snout and cute big eyes. Less cute is its value and literal name: The Converter. I’m sure somewhere in the comics the banality of its name makes deeper sense, but this movie isn’t interested in going beyond the superficial. It only makes sense because the converter has the power to lay tiny pearls containing megatons of power. Welcome to the alienating superficial logic of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Valerian is an interstellar cop (Dane DeHaan), whose attraction to his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) makes it only slightly hard for him to focus on his job. However, he seems more interested in adding her as a conquest than making a genuine love connection. During a moment of him dropping a line on her after hanging on a projected beach in swimsuits on some holodeck aboard their spaceship, Laureline calls up a “playlist” of his previous girlfriends or at best hookups as holograms along the hall of the spacecraft to remind him of past actions and “feelings.”
On it will go, in the face of an, at best, interesting early action sequence that sees Valerian caught between two dimensions at once, albeit in overly literal fashion. There’s also a villainous general (Clive Owen) who harbors secret plans for their precious cargo, and a silly and overly long detour that sees Laureline kidnapped by a tribe of dimwitted troll-like creatures with heads like hammerhead sharks. A shapeshifting gelatine-based creature called Bubble (Rihanna) offers to aid Valerian after he frees her from the clutches of a tacky cowboy pimp played by Ethan Hawke.
At this point, it’s worth noting the film’s quirky casting, which never seems to rise above its stunt quality. Wearing a nose ring chained to an earring below a straw hat, Hawke builds his threatening persona with arms-outstretched and neck-jutting swagger. He’s as cartoonish as the digitally composed characters around him. Rihanna, on the other hand, simply plays Rihanna in space and beats DeHann at winning the most monotone delivery in the entire movie. They may as well have cut and pasted her into the movie from one of her own music videos. Then there are the leads. DeHaan seems to be trying to channel Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back without the sincerity. Also, and not that he can’t help it much, but his husky voice belies his boyish features. It’s just a bad casting decision. Just as she was saddled by her role in Suicide Squad (Suicide Squad is an exasperatingly dull sidebar to super hero genre — a film review), Delevingne is never given much to rise above her own objective beauty. She’s treated like an object by Valerian, is often dressed in skimpy outfits and needs rescuing on more than one occasion.
It amounts to a movie that sparkles with colorful effects but speaks to the vapidness below the surface. As altruistic as the mission becomes for our heroes, it never hits the heart because they pause so often to discuss suspicions and moral obligations instead of convincing the audience through actions that never rises above stunt work. This is often the dividing line between great science fiction and bad. The best of sci-fi, should transcend the binds of expectations in surprising ways and rely less on visual trickery. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets never does that.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets runs 137 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in South Florida in wide release on Friday, July 21. For screening details in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website. STX Entertainment invited us to a preview screening in 3D for the purpose of this review.