Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 22, 2017
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It’s funny how a film’s reputation can change over time, especially in the sci-fi genre. Take Bladerunner for example. When it debuted 35 years ago it was pretty much considered an unmitigated disaster; dark, bleak, incomprehensible. Certainly not another Star Wars like everyone was expecting. Yet, here we are three decades later and Bladerunner is now considered one of the truly great sci-fi films of all-time, and it’s finally getting a long-awaited sequel this Fall with Bladerunner: 2049 (which seems like such an ‘80s kind of title, so in other words, perfect). Or perhaps more apropos for this review, think about The Fifth Element. It too wasn’t widely regarded when it release; too weird, too goofy, too vivacious and energetic to be taken seriously, too many big, broad themes dealing with light and darkness and the power of love. Yet again, move on twenty-years and while it may not be considered a classic quite like Bladerunner, it has become a rather beloved sci-fi favorite because of all of its quirky charm. All of which brings us to Valerian and the City of Thousand Planet. I think it’s safe to say this movie will not become a blockbuster sci-fi classic in its own time, but a couple decades from now, who knows, perhaps it too will be viewed very differently. Still, the fact remains that today Valerian is a movie that feels like it was trying to achieve a lot but just kept falling short. It never does enough to really come into its own, which leaves it as a very middle-of-the-road, enjoyable but ultimately forgettable adventure.

The biggest problem is Valerian just isn’t as breezily charming or endearingly quirky as it thinks it is. A lot of this has to do with the lead actors. Clearly the lead role of Valerian was written as Bruce Willis-type of role; it has a lot of similar traits as Korben Dallas from Fifth Element. However, Dane DeHaan just isn’t another Bruce Willis; he doesn’t have the charisma to pull off a role that really needed a lot of that to make it click. It’s hard to buy into his character as a roguish charmer or as a hardcore action hero. Also lacking is the chemistry between DeHaan and Cara Delevingne’s Laureline. Their “Sam and Diane Cheers thing” just isn’t believable and often feels rather rote. The flirtatious friends-but-maybe-more-than-friends relationship just doesn’t click and isn’t as endearing or cute as it tries to be. Considering that these are the two lead characters and their relationship drives much of the film, the fact that all of that falls far short of what it really needed to be in order to be truly engaging is a huge problem for the film. No knock on these actors, but it just seems they weren’t quite right for the type of roles they were trying to fill.

However, there is quite a lot in Valerian that does work. In fact, the first half-hour or so really gets one hoping that this really could be this generation’s Fifth Element. There’s a fun action scene that takes place in multiple dimensions (hard to explain, but awesome to watch), and a brilliant opening that wordlessly but perfectly sets the stage and helps you understand this world you’re about to dive into. There’s tons of wild imagination in the worlds of Valerian as well as in all the different alien species. Much of the fun in Valerian is in discovering these worlds, which makes it a bit of a disappointment when the film settles down in the second half to just exploring the innards of the City of Thousand Planets form the title, also known as Alpha. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of cool things to explore in the massive station as well, but towards the end there’s just too much time spent in dark, industrial settings when we’ve seen several much richer locales.

Like any good sci-fi film should, Valerian also has a few things to say about our current world presented in the form of this future world and its struggles. To be honest, some of this was so painfully cliché and obvious as to be eye-rolling; certainly not nearly as subtlety probing and thought provoking as it should have been. However, there was one statement made that I found rather interesting; unless you make peace with the past you won’t have a future. How many of us have made mistakes in the past? How many of have let those mistakes hold us back from going forward in the future? I’d say that’s a fairly common issue, but the big question is how do we make peace with our past? Well, God’s solution is to just simply erase it. Through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, we can wipe our past clean and enjoy a clear and bright future with him. “’Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18) In other words, the sins and mistakes of the past can be washed away allowing us to move forward unhindered into a bright future of grace, forgiveness, and love. They key being this is no something we can ever do on our own, it can only happen through the acceptance of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.

Accepting Valerian as a great sci-fi movie, however, may be something that never happens. The problem isn’t that this is a bad move, the problem is it never really does enough to be the great movie it wants to be. It’s doesn’t have enough charisma to be the quirky film it wants to be, it doesn’t have enough oomph to be the action film it would like to be, and it doesn’t have enough poignancy to be the social commentary it believes itself to be. In the end, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film that had some grand ambitions but only mediocre execution. It’s beautiful to behold, but instantly forgettable.

Score: 4 of 7 – Valerian as some gooey moments with its aliens and action set pieces, a smattering of language, and a rather out of place dance number that is suggestive to say the least (let’s just say it involves a pole). None of this is a gratuitous as it could be, but it’s worth knowing it’s there. Oddly, like pretty much everything else in this movie, even the objectionable content is really only mediocrely there.

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