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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, written and directed by Luc Besson, is breathtakingly gorgeous and full of wonderfully imaginative sci-fi concepts. Unfortunately, its plot and characters are nowhere near as interesting.
Based on French science fiction comic series Valérian and Laureline, City of a Thousand Planets is set in the 28th century, as special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are tasked with protecting the space station Alpha from an unknown threat.
Alpha houses millions of creatures from all over the universe and is a thriving hub for a peaceful exchange of culture and knowledge. City of a Thousand Planet’s opening sequence is a wonderful montage of the centuries it took for Alpha to grow as vast it does, with numerous alien races coming to Earth and adding their own structures to the station.
Vibrant colors, a wide variety of aliens and overall spectacular special effects make City of a Thousand Planets one of the best examples of cinematic eye candy I’ve ever seen. The movie is simply gorgeous and it’s easy to tell that a lot of care and imagination when into crafting its sci-fi universe.
It also scores points for a number of really cool concepts. Early on, we’re introduced to Big Market, a gigantic trade center that exists in a different dimension. Visitors must wear special goggles and gloves to see and interact with anything there – and if that isn’t awesome enough already, The City of a Thousand Planets even has a chase set in Big Market.
Trying to keep track of everyone as they chase each other across different dimensional layers can make your head spin and in a good way at that. It just makes you giddy at how cool and inventive it is. Between that, psychic alien jellyfish that you can put on your head to find what you’re looking for and alien shapeshifters that you can have wrapped around you as all kinds of disguises, City of a Thousand Planets has no shortage of ridiculously cool things.
Unfortunately, nothing about the plot and characters even comes close to matching the energy and imagination that permeates every other aspect of the movie. DeHaan and Delevingne are likable, charismatic stars, but their characters spend much of City of a Thousand Planets bickering – and when they’re not doing that, they indulge in stale gender stereotypes, such as Valerian being a womanizer that’s afraid of commitment.
At times, the pair are downright unlikable. After barely escaping the clutches of a giant alien monster, Laureline immediately complains about her torn dress. That same monster had literally just killed a whole squad of soldiers the two were working with and neither of them acknowledge it in any way. Moments like these are thankfully few and far between, as Valerian and Laureline spend most of their time just being dull.
Valerian’s is infatuated with Laureline and by the end, their fledgling relationship doesn’t feel like it’s seen any real meaningful progression. There is character development, just not a lot of it.
After the brilliant Big Market sequence, City of a Thousand Planets noticeably slows down. There’s a huge chunk in the middle of the film where Laureline has to rescue Valerian, only for Valerian to have to rescue her afterwards. Some cool stuff happens during those bits, but they pad the story out considerably and practically kill the pacing.
Rihanna’s highly publicized cameo is a mixed bag. Her first scene, a fetish fuel dance number, is great, but then it turns out she has a speaking part and it’s all downhill from there. Her performance is pretty wooden, which is painfully highlighted by the fact that her character is meant to be a terrific performer capable of flawlessly assuming countless identities. In addition, she is completely upstaged by Ethan Hawke’s cameo as the gloriously named Jolly the Pimp.
Clive Owen plays a character that is so obviously the villain that City of a Thousand Planets doesn’t even bother to present it as a twist. While that’s nice, it just goes to show how pedestrian the movie’s plot beats and characters are.
In conclusion, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is merely decent. It has all the making of a cult classic but falls short of true sci-fi greatness on account of its uninteresting characters and predictable story.