Filled to the brim with eye popping visuals and sequences that act as proof that director Luc Besson has a vivid imagination, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, nevertheless, falls short as the picture unloads a whole bunch of exposition and virtually non-stop frenetically energetic action sequences on a story that is not that captivating and, frankly, feels like the leftover plot for a long-lost Star Wars movie. There’s much to see in Valerian, but it’s a picture that is overstuffed in several departments, while leaving viewers malnourished in others.
For starters, Besson is a director whose visual style can often make for a compelling and exciting piece of action cinema. But when he lets his worst impulses get the better of him, his pictures feel crammed with an overabundance of style and wild pageantry at the expense of story and character.
For every La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element or, most recently, Lucy, there’s an Angel-A, The Family or the much beleaguered Joan of Arc tale The Messenger. And Valerian is, unfortunately, more in line with the latter three than the former.
This is not to say that the film is an outright bust. As I’ve mentioned, there’s a whole lot going on in this film visually – and a decent portion of it is stimulating to the eye. As the film opens, we are privy to an oceanic world filled with creatures who appear to have been stolen away from the Avatar effects department and have small lizards for pets whose bowel movements release crystals that fuel their planet. Or, there’s a later sequence during which the titular character (Dane DeHaan) is chasing after a group of individuals and he travels through walls and what would appear to be other dimensions in his pursuit. It’s a dazzling sequence.
As the film opens, the caddish Valerian – a top military operative – has proposed to his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and she doesn’t appear to exactly jump at the offer. However, a series of nearly inexplicable plot threads later, the duo are pursuing some of the aforementioned Avatar-looking creatures, who have kidnapped a possibly nefarious general (Clive Owen) and are in search of a crystal that can restore their planet, which we see destroyed at the beginning of the movie.
In the meantime, special effects abound. Laureline is kidnapped herself by a group of gigantic, ogre-like beings who attempt to feed her to their king. And Valerian finds himself attempting to free a shape shifting slave (Rihanna) from her pimp-like captor (Ethan Hawke), but not before a long, drawn-out sequence during which the slave dances for Valerian. Around nearly every corner is a new digitally created creature waiting to be discovered and most of them are examples of impressive visual effects. However, many of these creatures are voiced by individuals who are spastically overacting.
So, while Valerian is undoubtedly a triumph in the visuals department, its story – which is a fairly routine galaxy-hopping adventure in which a planet’s fate hangs in the balance that feels assembled out of the parts of better films, such as The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Avatar or even one of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s slightly overlong and entirely too busy at all times – but yet not conveying anything in terms of story, theme or character that matches its imaginative visuals.