The first five minutes, fifteen seconds of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one of my favorite sequences in film this year. Set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” we see the history of Alpha, the titular city, which begins as an American Space Station that quickly becomes International, welcoming the crews of astronauts from China, India, Africa, and all of the world’s many cultures, each dressed in their own uniquely designed spacesuits, and greeting them with a handshake. Within a lifetime, Alpha begins to attract extra-terrestrial life, and every species of life that comes aboard, regardless of how alien they might be, is similarly welcomed with a handshake. After about a hundred years of collecting people and modules from across space, Alpha becomes too massive to stay in Earth’s orbit and is rocketed into the stars to further grow and assemble the universe’s various species and cultures.
It’s a beautiful sequence that showcases an optimistic future for humanity, united across our planet and across the stars, ever growing and accepting of the new and the strange. And I’m a sucker for Bowie of course, but the song choice compliments the scene perfectly, the lyrics telling of a man who escapes orbit and accepts his sublime place in the cosmic harmony. These first five minutes really might be my favorite in film this year next to Wonder Woman’s No-Man’s-Land sequence.
Unfortunately, the remaining 130 minutes of Valerian fails to live up to the promise of its city of 1000 planets, with an overstuffed yet over-familiar plot featuring some truly bad dialogue and one very miscast Dane DeHann.
After the first gorgeous prologue, we get another, this time some 600 years later, on the paradise beach planet of Mül, which is surely enough destroyed apocalyptically when a giant space-ship crashes into it. Visions of this destruction are transmitted some thirty years into the future into the mind of Valerian (Dane DeHann), a space cop with a Pepe Le Pew like infatuation with his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who doesn’t return his feelings, mainly because of his long list of previous conquests.
But Valerian’s pushy proposals are interrupted when the two begin their mission, to retrieve a Mül Converter, a cute little over-designed Pikachu looking creature with the ability to instantly replicate anything it eats, that is, of course, the last of its kind. After a lengthy and spectacular chase that takes place in two-dimensions at once, Valerian and Laureline rescue the creature from its criminal captors and bring it to their central command on Alpha. But, before they can successfully hand it off, the Commander of the Army/Police gets kidnapped by the remaining native Mül-ians, who believe him to be holding the last Converter; which means Valerian and Lauraline must search the entirely of Alpha to find out where they took him, and why.
Writer/Director Luc Besson’s sci-fi has always been almost aggressively out there, but even by his standards, Valerian is bonkers. It feels as though Besson took every idea he liked from his favorite comic book, and every idea he’s ever left out of a movie, and decided to shove it into this one. There are interdimensional chases, space battles that happen entirely in flashback, shape-shifting alien pole-dancers, mind-reading and eating jellyfish, and enough new alien species to rival the entire Star Wars mythos. And, in a way, it’s as though Besson really is trying to fit the entirely of a Star Wars size mythology into a single two hour and change movie. I actually admire how assertive Besson is with this entirely new universe, never stopping to really explain how or why anything works or happens, leaning much more into the fiction than the science. But Valerian is so eager to show off all of its cool toys and ideas, and to get all of them in, that none of them have a chance to actually matter. So much of the action in Valerian feels like a distraction from the movie’s barebones plot, just a way for Besson to squeeze in thirty seconds of a cool thing he thought of or a cool part of the comics. It’s less that the movie is ambitious or ever-extended, and more that it’s just hyperactive. More than anything, it feels like Besson needed an editor, someone to tell him no, you can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.
An editor might have also helped when it comes to this movie’s awful dialogue. There’s maybe one not-cringeworthy line of dialogue in the entire movie, and if those first five minutes are any proof, Besson’s strengths as a director are much more pronounced when nobody’s talking. But, as terrible as any of these lines are on paper, they’re exacerbated by a lack of chemistry between anybody in the entire cast, with the lead actor, Dane DeHaan as Valerian, being the unfortunate nadir. DeHaan’s weird babyface twink performance is a strict no-sell for Valerian’s intergalactic roguishness. When he talks about his years in the service and the hundreds of women he’s been with, it comes across as a 15 year old telling their friend about the time they totally shot his dad’s gun and then had sex with their girlfriend who’s from Canada but really she’s real and he’s totally stuck his pingle into her vagroober. Besides DeHaan’s agent, I have no idea who would read “square-jawed, pulp action, space cop” and think, “ah, yes – what about the nerdy kid from Chronicle?”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film I really want to love. An enthusiastic space-pulp love story that spans galaxies and dimensions centered on a human experiment in universal unity with other life forms isn’t just up my alley – it is almost my entire alley. But, for all the spectacle and sheer creativity on display in this movie, there’s no getting over that it’s fundamentally sloppy and slapdash. It’s a fever dream that Besson miraculously managed to capture in a bottle to show all of us, but for all the impressive sights and sounds, there just isn’t a clear purpose here. And – again – as singularly brilliant as those opening minutes are, the one scene that epitomizes Valerian comes later. Just after the Mül-ians kidnap the Commander, Valerian gives chase through Alpha, trying to head them off before they get to a restricted area. He literally crashes through walls, rockets through an under-water area, cuts through a giant alien molecule forest thing, and uses his platform gun to hop across Alpha’s congested collage of spaceships; and we’re forced to watch him whizz by, wishing that we could stop for a sec to actually explore this amazing world that Besson created for us.