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VALERIAN is a Sci-Fi Visual Treat (Review)

Science fiction in film goes all the way back to Georges Méliès’ 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, and since the very beginning, the best ones showed us a world wholly new and exciting, something the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And if you’ve spent any large quantity of time watching these movies, it can feel after awhile like there perhaps are no new vistas to see. Fortunately we have Luc Besson, who has brought a French comic book to the screen in a way that will make audiences truly marvel. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen.

SG1 – ALPHA The breathtaking intergalactic city of Alpha is an ever-expanding metropolis comprised of thousands of different species from all four corners of the universe. Alpha’s seventeen million inhabitants have converged over time- uniting their talents, technology and resources for the betterment of their citizens. From visionary writer/director Luc Besson’s "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets". Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment Motion Picture Artwork © 2017 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Based on the comics series written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter just referred to as Valerian) is very clearly a passion project for Besson and the degree of detail to replicate the unique visual aesthetic of the books is astonishing. Every location, costume, prop, action sequence, alien, spaceship–everything feels at once timeless and fresh, and great pains were taken to ensure everything retained the popping, vibrant colors of the books while feeling like a believable world. Seeing it in 3D, I felt overwhelmed, engulfed in one of the coolest depictions of the future since Blade Runner.


The film follows a pair of special operatives named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) who banter and make sexual innuendo but are devoted partners. They are tasked with retrieving contraband material from a black market deal and return it to the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock) and that leads them to an unfolding mystery surrounding said objects and the people who might want to get them. When their commanding officer (Clive Owen) is kidnapped, Valerian and Laureline must head deep into Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets, and find an answer that will affect not only the city, but the entire universe. I’m being purposely vague to preserve the fun you’ll have discovering what’s actually going on.

SG3 – KORTAN DAHUK The Kortan Dahuk were the first extraterrestrial race to dock with the Alpha Space Station in the year 2135. They hail from the planet of Kas-ônar, 5,000 light-years from Earth. Organized by the quest for harmony and beauty, they are a well-traveled race with great experience and interaction with other species. From visionary writer/director Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Photo courtesy of EuropaCorp © 2016 VALERIAN SAS – TF1 FILMS PRODUCTION 

As the long-awaited follow-up to Besson’s 1997 movie, The Fifth Element, which admittedly took a lot from the Valerian and Laureline comics, the film version of Valerian is largely successful in what it sets out to do. It does a great job of world building and I really appreciate that it doesn’t spend a ton of time explaining how things work, we just see things work and can fill in the rest. The alien races are all completely distinct and have societies and customs that Besson shows us but doesn’t waste time on expository dialogue about who and what they are. I cannot stress how refreshing this is for a popcorn sci-fi flick, to just get to the action and only tell us what’s integral to the story, using the rest as window dressing and context.


The film’s opening sequence could have been a perfect and self-contained short film. Set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Alpha’s creation unfolds through the coupling up of various space stations, starting with the Russian, American, and Chinese, and continues with alien races joining in peace and harmony as well. Eventually, so many of these have linked up that it has to be moved far away from the Earth, and becomes its own melting pot of a planet, with different races doing different things to make the City all function on its own. It’s a beautiful sequence that sets the mood for the rest of the movie.


There are many things I loved about this movie, but I didn’t love everything and that’s where we run into some fairly major problems. The human actor performances do not live up to the richness of the world, and in particular this is true of our two leads. In a film with so much excitement, DeHaan and Delevigne stick out with their complete lack of charisma and nonexistent chemistry. DeHaan plays one note–the swaggering cool guy–through the entire movie and even when he’s meant to be emotionally sincere, he comes across as someone who’s just reading lines. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, Delevigne reacts to everything like she’s in a silent movie or a cartoon, with enormous expressions interspersed between scowls. I’ve heard from people who know the comics very well that this is how the characters are in those books, but to me, as a person who doesn’t know the books, they simply felt entirely out of their element, badly miscast, and I was never able to connect with them individually, and certainly not in their relationship.


I wish I could say that the performances didn’t detract too much, but they sadly did. Even so, the visuals, action sequences, general storyline, and immersive experience of the 3D are enough to make me recommend people go see the movie. I fully believe that Besson got exactly what he wanted from every aspect of the movie, but his idea of what makes compelling leads and mine seem to differ drastically. It’s a sci-fi world I would love to visit again, but perhaps with different tour guides.

3 out of 5 Burritos

Images: STX Entertainment

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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