Although slow to start and saddled with a flawed leading man, Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is an entertaining and inventive space opera

March 6, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 6, 2018

For a brief span before the space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was released in July 2017, it seemed to be impossible to turn on a television without seeing an advertisement for the movie. Clearly, some corporation or other had made a huge bet on the feature, which was written and directed by prolific Frenchman Luc Besson (La Femme NikitaLucy and many others).

This investment didn’t pay off, at least in the U.S.: Valerian, which was made for an estimated $177 million, was greeted with bafflement and sank with hardly a trace. The movie took in a paltry $41 million in American ticket sales; that ranked 66th among domestic box-office grosses for 2017, just ahead of fellow comic-book adaptation Ghost in the Shell and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but was roughly half of what The Emoji Movie and Power Rangers made in 36th and 37th places, respectively.

On the other hand, Valerian had international box-office receipts of nearly $185 million. It wasn’t a runaway hit like, say, The Fate of the Furious, which topped all comers with overseas ticket sales of more than $1 billion, but it (probably) wasn’t a complete disaster for (all of) its investors.

It’s too bad the picture didn’t fare better, because when I sat down to watch Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets the other night, I found a slow-to-start but otherwise well-paced adventure story with some beautiful visuals and intriguing concepts.

The main setting is Alpha. The titular “city of a thousand planets,” this is a massive collection of structures that began existence as the International Space Station but expanded over the centuries as various alien species dropped by Earth to make contact. The protagonists, United Human Federation agents Valerian (Cole DeHaan of Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne of Suicide Squad), are assigned to guard Alpha’s commander, Arun Filitt (Clive Owen of Closer and Children of Men).

When Filitt is abducted by an unknown species and taken to a mysterious dead spot near Alpha’s heart, Valerian disappears while pursuing the kidnappers. From that point forward, Laureline and Valerian take turns trying to save the day, not to mention each other. Along the way, they uncover a high-level cover-up and attempt to make amends for a decades-old catastrophe.

Besson can be a wildly inventive filmmaker — witness, for instance, his beautiful but cringe-inducing 1997 space opera The Fifth Element, which had significant humorous elements, as does Valerian. This time around, Besson has put together a much more enjoyable experience, although it’s not without its flaws.

DeHaan is a capable actor, but I’m not sold on him as an action hero. Part of the issue here is that he largely speaks in a monotone that seems to be modeled after Keanu Reeves’s overly portentous intonations from The Matrix series. Perhaps this was meant to help balance Valerian’s comic touches; however, DeHaan’s voice ends up sounding both contrived and needlessly morose. Add to that the fact that the protagonists’ emotional arc involves Valerian’s annoying attempts to woo his fellow (subordinate) field agent and I was left watching an ostensible hero whom I found to be something of a drag.

The movie’s other big problem is that, with a running time of two hours and 17 minutes, it takes too long to get to the meat of the story. The feature, which is based on a long-running French comic-book series written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, begins with a prologue showing how the International Space Station evolved into a mobile interstellar space station of Alpha over the course of centuries. Then there’s a second prologue showing an idyllic alien village whose inhabitants get caught up in a major battle.

Next, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets devotes about 30 minutes to an episode in which the heroes recover a nearly extinct animal that’s about to be sold illicitly in a multidimensional bazaar on a desert planet. Valerian and Laureline don’t land on Alpha and get into the main plot until nearly an hour has passed. The animal they retrieve in the bazaar plays a role in the story — particularly at the climax — but it’s not nearly as important as Besson believes. The movie would have moved much more briskly if the recovery operation had been pared down substantially or perhaps ditched altogether.

Even so, Valerian is a fun but inessential space adventure that should also appeal to action fans. Viewers who can overlook DeHaan’s shortcomings and wait things out until the movie gets to the heart of the story will find a lively, entertaining romp.

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