Considering the level of success The Fifth Element brought to Luc Besson, it’s astonishing that it’s taken 20 years for him to return to a grand-scale level of science fiction filmmaking. With the release of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson has once again created a film that’s loaded with great ideas, scenes, and mind-blowing images. On a visual level, Besson is a tremendous storyteller. Valerian comes close to reaching The Fifth Element‘s level, but it falls short – and, if anything, is pulled back from that level – by an unfortunate combination of a clunky script and a critical misfire in casting.
The film opens with the creation of the space station Alpha, which grows over centuries from a small station orbiting the Earth to a giant space station that’s home to over 5,000 civilizations. The film then cuts to a civilization on the peaceful planet of Mul, whose inhabitants enjoy their way of life until their planet is destroyed. As the planet disintegrates, the princess of the planet sends out a mental shockwave that awakens Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan). Valerian tries to decipher the vision he’s been sent while working with fellow agent Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to recover a valuable species. Once they arrive back at Alpha, though, they learn there’s much more going on.
Valerian can pretty easily be broken down to its various set pieces, which work to varying degrees of success. The most successful by far is Big Market, which takes place in two dimensions – our dimension where the space appears to be a vast, empty desert, and an alternate dimension (accessible through special gloves and glasses) where a vast, seemingly endless marketplace exists. It’s a fascinating place that would be worth exploring in depth, but the film is in and out within ten minutes. And while Big Market might be the best of these worlds Besson shows off, it’s not the only one that seems more full of life than this film can contain.
Sometimes, Besson does go overboard with the details. Plot contrivances lead to detours that leave the central plot adrift for large chunks of the film. These diversions are fun, but they sometimes seem like attempts to gloss over some internal issues with the film. Chief among them is the film’s approach to storytelling. If it’s not something that can be shown in a huge set piece, Besson has no interest in it, so he bogs the film down with exposition that, in many instances, makes no sense in the context of the film. Having Valerian and Laureline drop huge exposition chunks makes their relationship seem like something significantly less than the partnership we’re told these two have.
Even that flaw could have worked better, though, with a better lead actor. Dane DeHaan is a terrific actor in the right role, but he doesn’t have the charisma to pull off Valerian’s cocksure attitude, nor does he suggest that he has the experience that Valerian is supposed to have. His miscasting is made worse by Cara Delevingne’s performance, because she’s more than capable of pulling off her role. During a section of the film where Laureline is on her own, you realize just how much better the film would be if the focus was on her instead of Valerian. Given that the source material was a comic book called Valerian and Laureline, the decision to drop her name from the title is made all the more frustrating by the fact that Laureline’s the more interesting character.
It’s frustrating to see just where, with a few changes, Valerian would be a great example of summer blockbuster fare. The combination of exposition-heavy storytelling and a complete miscast in the lead role, though, lead to Valerian being a film that’s visually appealing, but not one that could stand alongside The Fifth Element.