Any time you’re watching a movie and Ethan Hawke randomly shows up you know you’re in rough shape. This is the case with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the first (and likely last) movie adaptation of the popular French science fiction graphic novel series “Valerian and Laureline.” Faithfully adapting any of this series into a blockbuster action movie was bound to be difficult, and it’s easy to see why the studio took the safe route, but in the end the film lacks any real emotional impact while playing into tired tropes that don’t even make sense in the constructed world.
The film opens with a hopeful view of humanity’s place in the cosmos. We see our species united in its exploration of space in a way that conjures thoughts of Star Trek. The International Space Station steadily grows as more human cultures join the United States and Russia in launching astronauts. Eventually aliens make contact, and we see a rapidly growing group of species welcomed with the iconic human hand shake. I have to admit, I was fully prepared to buy into this optimistic view of humanity given our recent history, but these feelings are fleeting as the idea of humanity uniting the cosmos is never realized by the plot. As those feelings flee so does every other one besides disdain.
The titular hero (played by Dane DeHaan) is introduced and immediately established as a womanizing, port-hopping, secret agent. He doggedly pursues the only woman around, who is – of course – his partner Laureline. That’s right, the introduction of the hero features him engaging is workplace sexual harassment. Not only is this deplorable in its own right, but as audience members we know that if the script is this poorly constructed up front then the film will end with the two of them lip-locked. Spoiler Alert: That’s literally the final scene.
Laureline is no better of a character. Cara Delevingne plays her as an emotionless ivy league educated genius. She is so lacking any basic emotion or compassion that when she cries at the culmination of her story arc it feels hollow and forced. You may ask how I know that Laureline is ivy league educated. It is because we are told exactly that in her first scene. This is a movie of things told to you rather than being demonstrated through such antiquated concepts as acting or scripted character development. The primary narrative currency of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is exposition, be it from the characters about each other, the aliens about themselves, or the ship reading an encyclopedia to the characters. The result is an audience left emotionally detached from the characters and everything happening to them.
It’s fair to say that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a post-Avatar film. It relies heavily on stunning visuals for the sets and the aliens, notably the Pearls, the suspiciously Avatar-like aliens at the center of the plot. A beach dwelling species that have lived in perfect harmony with nature for centuries, they play a key role in the central mystery of the film. The problem is that we are never really aware that a mystery exists. There are always indications that something is amiss, but the story moves from minor trouble to minor trouble, the characters constantly working through one short term challenge after another, none of which provide any clues to the greater mystery. The challenge in building a story around a mystery is that when the revelation happens the audience must themselves possess all the same clues as the characters, it is only that the characters piece it together (hopefully) before the audience does. In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets the clues are largely lacking, so that when Valerian and Laureline expose the hidden truths they seem to know things with great certainty that were never explained to us or them. The writers tip their hand in acknowledging the shortcomings of their work as they literally show us past events as the characters are correctly guessing what happened.
Overall, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a movie filled with impressive visuals and set in a world with great storytelling potential – which is to be expected since it’s based on a well loved and iconic series of books. Unfortunately it is headlined by a pair of characters not up to the task of engaging the viewer, given that one is emotionless and the other emotionally deplorable. The imaginative set pieces and creative alien designs can not prop up a movie marred by feeble plot, poor dialog, and entirely too much exposition. The saddest thing is that such an amazing sci-fi world will now never get the treatment it deserves.
2* - Valerian and the City of a Thousand Eye Rolls