Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Somewhere in the middle of the film’s unjustifiably hefty running time of one hundred forty minutes, I decided to turn my brain off and simply try to enjoy the pavonine display of visual feasts. But considering today’s pedigree of top science fiction pictures, the approach of style over substance does not and should not cut it any longer, a fact that writer-director Luc Besson either is not aware of or chooses to overlook. One takes a serious look at “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and realizes that it is a piece of work that falls just short of greatness.
Had Besson taken more time to revise the screenplay, he might have realized that he needed to dig deeper into the idea of various futuristic cultures coming together, humanoid or otherwise, to form a synergistic society and connect this concept to our current reality that is the increasing interconnectedness of a global community. After all, the sci-fi genre is classically used to hold up a mirror to society which paves the way for self-criticism and introspection. It is such a disappointment then that the film has nothing more on its mind other than to entertain superficially. Had its ideas been more muscular and layered, its flaws on the level of popcorn entertainment could have been far away easily overlooked.
Take a look at the casting, for example. While Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, United Human Federation soldiers and each other’s love interest, do a capable job in playing their respective roles, there are occasions when they look bored with their roles, hungry for a challenge. Instead of being provided a believable and relatable character development, at times the duo are reduced to saying cheesy one-liners that are supposed to be fun, completely contrasting against the look on their unchallenged faces.
The would-be romance between Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline is forced and completely unconvincing. DeHaan and Delevingne have such specific appeal on their own but when they are less than half a foot apart and must lean in for some sort of romantic affection, it is awkward and strange, to say the least. It goes without saying that the co-stars lack a spark, a strong chemistry required to establish a satisfying budding romance. Perhaps the fact that we learn close to nothing about these characters, with the exception of what they do and how good they are at it, contributes to the absence of romantic credibility.
Still, there are details to be enjoyed such as the look of the extraterrestrial life forms we come across, from lizard-like creatures that can only utter garbled noises to amorphous beings with excellent command of language. Particularly beautiful are the Pearls whose sun-drenched tropical planet is destroyed during a dramatic opening sequence. One cannot help but stare at their skin, how it is decorated by cosmetics and jewelry depending on their rank, the distance between their eyes, their androgynous features.
A lot of effort is put into the look and form the aliens, even various places where action sequences unfold, a handful of them quite stunning on top of commanding original ideas, but what the picture needed most is a heart and brain that at least match every unique peculiarity we encounter. Style over substance may work on a pure action picture but rarely is it overlooked in science fiction where ideas are worth their weight in gold.