I was really expecting a lot out of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, as a great deal of it lived up to the expectations that I had, there was still enough to detract from its majesty to leave me feeling relatively cold in the end. This may come as a surprise to you, given that I was and am a staunch defender of Jupiter Ascending (going so far as to put it on my Top Ten of 2015 list), but it comes as even more of a surprise to me. Maybe it’s that the charisma score of the two leads in Ascending (Channing Tatum +10, Mila Kunis -4, sum total 6) was still higher than that of Valerian (Dane DeHaan, normally a +8 for me, comes in at a +1.5 here, and Cara DeLevigne at a surprising +4), or maybe it’s that Ascending was a dumb-but-pretty thrill ride that escalated over the course of the film while Valerian is front-loaded with a lot of greatness that peters out into a banal “love” story by the conclusion.
The film opens on a magical and beautifully rendered sequence, set to “Space Oddity,” that shows the progress of the Alpha space station as it grows over time to include a multitude of different national space programs and astronauts, then to include delegates and additions from other space-faring races, to ultimately become so massive that it has to leave earth’s orbit and move into the Magellan Current (there’s no such thing that I know of, although there are dwarf and satellite galaxies near our own that are known as Magellanic Clouds). 400 years after leaving our solar system*, Alpha is home to millions of life forms from over a thousand races. Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (DeLevigne) are special agents of the Human Federation (it’s unclear why the amalgamation of races is referred to this way, or if the humans merely administrate the station due to the fact that they built the original core) on a mission to retrieve a valuable life form from a Jabba-esque alien (John Goodman) at an interdimensional bazaar. En route, Valerian receives a soul-powered dream/vision from a young alien princess who died following a catastrophic disaster on her home planet of Mül, an event that destroyed her world and drove her people to the brink of extinction.
Following their success, Valerian attempts to research Mül, but all information about it is classified, even to their four-star general superior Okto Bar (Sam Spruell). Their attempts to further discern what happened to the planet are thwarted when General Filitt (Clive Owen) is called upon to give a speech to assembled member species about a radiation zone which has appeared in the center of Alpha, and from which no survey team or tactical party has yet returned. This assembly is attacked and the general kidnapped, forcing Valerian to pursue and Laureline to investigate further, leading her down a rabbit hole adventure of duck-like aliens with trunks and scrotal skin, a psychic jellyfish that feeds on memories, a steampunk submarine pirate named Bob, and nearly getting eaten. Meanwhile, Valerian’s misadventures lead him to enlisting the help of a shapeshifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna), and finding out what really happened on Mül and who’s responsible.
I was so on board for this film, and I was completely in the moment, despite some reservations, until the point when Laureline is kidnapped. I wasn’t a huge fan of Valerian’s creepy possessiveness of and desire for Laureline, but I was willing to forgive this transgression as a kind of blind deconstruction of the Han/Leia relationship (YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective has a pretty good video essay on this subject here) until it became apparent that their relationship was meant to be read as completely sincere. This was the biggest sticking point for me in the first half of the movie, but I was still along for the thrill ride through that nonsense and a belabored info dump. However, the film starts to drift when Laureline is captured by the languageless alien monsters that hate outsiders (a friend compared them to Jar Jar Binks, saying that they weren’t explicitly racist caricatures like he was, but their tribalism, cannibalism, and lack of higher speech functions smacks of “space ignorance”). Meanwhile, Valerian has to recruit Bubble to help him as a disguise to enter their xenophobic culture to save Laureline (after she saved him first, so she’s no damsel in distress). This, too, is pretty dull, give or take a PG-rated shapeshifting Rihanna exotic dance number.
If you’ll recall, when Avatar came out, there were stories about people who were so obsessed with living in the world of Pandora that they were getting cosmetic surgery and considering suicide. That seemed absurd to me then (and now), but while I have no desire to shuffle off my mortal coil, I’ve never before experienced such an intense desire to live inside a film’s aesthetic than I have when watching the delegates of fish people and mechanical men arrive on Alpha. Aside from an expositional infodump as Valerian and Laureline return to the space station, there’s too little exploration of the world that’s been created. Instead, the film gets distracted by plot cul-de-sacs that explore areas of Alpha that are far less interesting than those of which we get only a glimpse. I used to think that we would never again live in a world where the special effects in a movie would be the film’s biggest draw, along the lines of how the word of mouth about Independence Day revolved around the monumental destruction of landmarks, bringing in more audience members than could have been expected. That’s not really true, however; the effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.
*Except not really. The film states that Alpha has progressed 700 million miles from earth at the time that the majority of the film takes place, which is . . . still in our solar system. To put it in perspective, the earth is an average distance of 93 million miles from the sun (a distance referred to in astronomy as an “astronomical unit,” or AU), so this would put Alpha less than 8 times further from our sun than we are, or, more poetically, further than Jupiter but closer than Saturn. The furthermost planet, Neptune (please refrain from expressing your non-scientific sentimentality for Pluto in the comments), is 2.795 billion miles from the Sun. Of course, it’s absurd that the film (and I in this footnote) are charting anything in miles, since astronomy is a science and science uses the metric system. Even if I misunderstood and the film said that Alpha was 700 billion miles (or 0.119 light years) out, our closest stellar neighbor Proxima Centauri is 24.94 trillion miles (4.243 light years) away, so it really hasn’t gotten far, especially in four centuries. That’s a mere 43.435 light days from earth! If this were set today, August 1, 2018, that means that I could live on Alpha and pick up radio transmissions from June 19. But just because they think Chester Bennington is still alive and have no idea that Anthony Scaramucci has been appointed and deposed, they’ll know soon. It’s hardly a distance befitting the majesty of pulling Rutger Hauer out of his bed of mothballs to give a grand speech about travelling among the stars. But I digress.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond