When visionary director Luc Besson released his weird, imaginative sci-fi flick The Fifth Element in 1997, audiences didn’t quite know what to think of it, and thus, it was taken to town by critics. But in over the past two decades, Corbin Dallas and Leelo have garnered cult classic status, and for good reason. The Fifth Element is enjoyable and fun as hell.
Sadly, Besson’s newest dive into the world of sci-fi, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets most likely won’t see that cult status come its way. It’s just too big of a mess — a beautiful mess, but a mess.
Valerian kicks off with an inspiring montage of humankind’s journey into space backed by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It shows the slow building of Alpha, a sort of International Space Station-turned-megastructure over several hundred years and the addition of zillions of alien species.
Besson then transports us to a idyllic planet named Mül where slender, teal, humanoid creatures named Pearls live in perfect harmony along a scenic, white sand coastline — think Avatar in the Caribbean. The inhabitants of Mül keep peace with their planet by gifting it energy-filled pearls. They can also replicate these pearls by feeding them to miniature armadillo-like creatures that immediately crap hundreds more out like some sort of a living and rigged slot machine. But, like all halcyon societies in futuristic films, the lives of the inhabitants of Mül are destroyed as dozens of spaceships crash through their atmosphere, followed by a massive mothership, whose explosion causes an apocalyptic scene.
Just like life on Mül, this is where everything in Valerian starts to come crashing down. We see that everything that just happened on Mül was a dream our male protagonist, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) was having while lying on a similarly beautiful beach next to our female protagonist Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Valerian hits on Laureline; she reminds him he forgot her birthday; they play fight with some sexual innuendos; and then she turns him down. This scene sets a precedent for the rest of the film: just when things are getting interesting, in comes some hackneyed dialogue or forced performances to dash hopes that this film could actually be enjoyable.
In a world filled with literally thousands of creatures of different origins; a world where tourists shopping in another dimension that looks like an endless Indian spice market; a world where you can shove your head up a jellyfish’s ass and see where people went missing; a world where Ethan Hawke, playing a skeezy cowboy-hatted, nose ring-wearing character named Jolly the Pimp runs a brothel with a Jell-O-like, shape-shifting performer played by Rihanna; a world with endless possibilities: we are given the “will they, won’t they” story of two of the most one-dimensional human characters to ever be on screen.
Valerian is a playboy soldier with all the emotional intelligence of an assault rifle, and, through DeHaan’s surprisingly stiff performance, no charm whatsoever. Laureline is his knife-tongued female partner who plays hard to get — but not too hard to get. While Delevingne did what she could to make Laureline join the ranks of the badass female characters we are seeing more of on the silver screen (think Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman) she’s pretty much pigeonholed as Valerian’s sidekick. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise since the graphic novels on which the film is based are named Valerian and Laureline, but the movie studio decided to drop Laureline’s name from the title.
These two special agents are sent on a Macguffin quest in the aforementioned other-dimensional market. This Macguffin is called a converter, which turns out to be the name given to those pearl-eating armadillos. This arc of the film shows the incredibly imaginative quality of the people behind the story. The perspective changes from an above view of people ambling through a flat open expanse, and then sliding into their view where they see a massive marketplace filled with stands and people bustling through narrow streets is fun and a vision of a not-so-distant VR future.
After obtaining the converter and Valerian inexplicably stealing a pearl at the same time, the duo heads to Alpha to return the converter to Commander Arun Fillit. As soon as we see Clive Owen’s Fillit, looking like a slightly futuristic version of M. Bison from Street Fighter, we know that he is the antagonist.
From here the movie moves forward with a series of repeated scenes: Valerian proposes to Laureline, she says no for x reason, they say some things about love, they get into a predicament, one of them goes missing by doing what they’ve been explicitly told not to do or what they’ve been told is impossible, the other one saves them — eat, drink, repeat.
By the end, where all of the things we’ve known for the past two hours finally add up for the characters, I really found myself not caring how it all wrapped up, and when it finally did, I literally laugh-cringed at the dialogue.
Where Valerian fails in plot, dialogue and acting, it succeeds time and again with world-building; it truly is one of the most intricate and intriguing sci-fi worlds I’ve seen. If there had been as much thought put into the script as there was into the world it could have been an incredible film.