Main cast: Dane DeHaan (Major Valerian), Cara Delevingne (Sgt Laureline), Elizabeth Debicki (Emperor Haban Limai), Sam Spruell (General Okto Bar), Kris Wu (Neza), John Goodman (Igor Siruss), Herbie Hancock (Defence Minister), Rutger Hauer (President of the World State Federation), Ethan Hawke (Jolly the Pimp), Rihanna (Bubbles), and Clive Owen (Arün Filitt)
Director: Luc Besson
Comparisons between Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to The Fifth Element are probably inevitable, as both are big sci-fi action flicks penned and directed by Luc Besson. There are some structural similarities, right down to a showstopper moment by Rihanna, playing a shape-shifting alien named Bubbles, comparable to the unforgettable Diva Dance moment in The Fifth Element. There is is just one stark difference that stands out: where The Fifth Element manages to bring out a sense of awe and wonder, this movie is shockingly mechanical and devoid of a sense of fun.
The story first, shall we? While this is based on the comic series that actually predated many of the sci-fi space operas we know today in movies and video games, so it is somewhat unfair to feel that it borrows many visual and storytelling tropes from those movies and video games. But I can’t help feeling “Hey, I can see that coming from a mile away!” frequently in this movie, as the story is that generic and formulaic.
Anyway, we start out with a campy, fun montage of how a space satellite was released from Earth’s gravity to be sent drifting into space, and eventually, aliens and humans make contact and the satellite becomes Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets. It is named thus because species from all corners of the galaxy come there and co-exist in a giant hub of trade, finance, and more. This is easily the most interesting aspect of the movie. Actually, it’s the only interesting aspect.
Our main characters are Valerian and Laureline. In the source material, they were time travelers, but here, they seem to be some generic soldier/operative type working for Arün Filitt. Their latest mission involves retrieving some creature that is the last of its kind – feed it something and it will poop out replicas of that thing out of its rear end – from some angry alien black market boss in a desert bazaar, go to Alpha to protect their boss as Filitt initiates a task squad to eliminate what seems like a radioactive core in Alpha, learn that Valerian is the host of the soul of a now dead Princess Nipply Peekaboo of a race of albino Na’vi whose planet was kaboom’ed by the crashing of a huge spaceship, and catch up with the remnants of that race only to learn that these folks only want to recreate their home so that they can resume their communist lifestyle of collecting pearls, getting their pets to poop out more pearls, and twirling in the sun. Oh, and our duo’s boss is the bad guy. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – it’s a revelation that crops up early in the movie, and I don’t think anyone will be shocked that a politician in a sci-fi movie turns out to be a meanie.
The plot, as you can tell by now, is a mess. Yes, The Fifth Element is a movie written by and for teenage boys, but that movie succeeds beautifully because of its audacious and bold embrace of its own ridiculousness. Here, however, the whole thing plays out straight like a typical sci-fi action flick – less over the top camp, less in-your-face humor – so the plot holes, reliance on absurd coincidences, and pointless filler scenes that add nothing to the story all stand out like sore pinkies. The filler scenes are noticeable, especially one scene that exists to force Laureline into a more politically correct scenario of the Leia-Jabba the Hut moment as well as to introduce – and quickly dispose of – Rihanna’s character. Does it add to the plot? No. You can argue that Bubbles is here to move the relationship between Valerian and Laureline, but let’s get to that later.
And then we have Valerian and Laureline. Oh boy, I’d like to have whatever these folks were having when they cast Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. They are both lumbered with some of the cheesiest, cringe-inducing “banters” I’ve come across in a while, but to be fair, so was the cast of The Fifth Element. But Mr DeHaan doesn’t mug it up with a playful smile at the corner of his lips – like Bruce Willis did – while Ms Delevingne plays pouty or petulant instead of amping up the playful fun and naked factor – like Milla Jovovich did. Laureline spends far less time being a damsel in distress, but she comes off as an even bigger one than Leeloo because, unlike Leeloo, she is supposed to be an experienced operative. And unlike Leeloo, Laureline’s first reaction anytime she is in danger is to scream out Valerian’s name, even if she has no idea whether he is the same area as she is. Both she and Valerian come off as pouty, petulant teenage kids playing at being secret agents, and therefore, they never endear themselves to me. I just can’t take them seriously, and their antics irk me.
So, their romance is a flop to me as well. This movie pushes it hard, but the bratty antics of these two make the whole thing feel superficial and so, so shallow. Not to mention, Mr DeHaan and Ms Delevingne have similar facial features that make them look more like brothers and sisters here, so the whole thing gets a little icky too. Oh, and they have no chemistry whatsoever.
On the bright side, this movie is visually very impressive. But at the same time, many sci-fi movies that gorge out CGI like someone with irritable bowel syndrome after an evening of pigging out at a buffet tend to be very nice to look at, these days, so it isn’t that much of a standout as a result. Besides, The Fifth Element had costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, which make those in this movie look drab and generic in comparison.
Any any rate, wait for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to hit the streaming or rental outlets, and go watch The Fifth Element in the meantime instead. Personally, I’m far more intrigued by the idea of a leaked sex tape of the post-victory celebration shag of Okto Bar and Neza than by the thought of future sequels, if these sequels are going to be as poorly scripted as this one and will bring back the two drab leads.