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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

What is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets about?

Alpha is a huge metropolis floating in space which was originally built above the Earth by humankind to allow people of different nationalities to share their knowledge and technologies. Over time it subsequently expanded to allow people of different races from throughout the galaxy to join in.

Enter Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne): a pair of human law enforcement officers who only work together, despite the ups and downs of their relationship (mostly caused by the former frequently hitting on the latter, despite her misgivings. They are sent on a special mission to retrieve a “converter” (an alien life form from the planet Mül which can change one pearl into thousands) from an interdimensional world called “Big Market” - a place where just about anything in the universe can be bought or sold.

Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan are weak elements in Valerian

After an action-packed narrow escape from various factions who want such a valuable creature in their own hands, the duo return to Alpha to receive a special briefing from Captain Arun Filitt (Clive Owen). He tells them that he has uncovered a radioactive zone in the city middle of this city - one which is expanding every day. The duo has to find a way to put a stop to it before it eradicates all life on Alpha.

Watch a trailer:

A flawed triumph of the imagination

An adaptation of a French comic book series called Valérian et Laureline, which ran from 1967-2010, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is already shaping up to be one of the major flops of summer 2017 after receiving decidedly mixed reviews and taking a pitiful $17 million during its opening weekend at the US/Canada box office. However, does it really deserve its dispiriting financial fate? Well… no, not quite. It is, without a doubt, the year’s most purely imaginative film, and hence as a sci-fi adventure is at least comfortably preferable to the tired likes of Alien:Covenant and Ghost in the Shell.

Even though there’s plenty wrong with Valerian, I have to say that I loved the constant thrill imbued by it constantly flinging these two characters through one chaotic mushroom-dream of an environment after another. It’s an epic sci-fi novel made flesh, and the kind of venture that actually testifies to the positive side of CGI: it allows for concepts that were too expensive and time-consuming to realise with practical effects to be depicted vividly in front of the viewer.

Mushroom-dream CGI environments in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Someone’s been smoking something strong

The opening sequence, a montage accompanied by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, shows the gradual expansion of Alpha as numerous weird and wonderful alien races shake hands with one generation after another of human diplomats. It’s as rich with hope as it is with creativity. Another, depicting an idyllically blue world being blackened by falling objects puncturing the sky, is ominously harrowing. The “Big Market” section plays like one of those “wretched hives of scum and villainy” from the Star Wars movies multiplied by ten, through a VR headset, on acid.

It’s even surprisingly amusing in its unabashed eccentricity; what about the jellyfish Laureline puts on her head to get a vision of where her lost colleague is? If not that, what about the three squat, duck-faced alien informants who habitually complete each other’s sentences?

Don’t look behind the curtain

It’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the wild ride of visual effects and world-building. The problems start when you try and think about the plot. In fact, it’s often hard to discern that there is any at all, as the huge extended visual setpieces often feel like self-contained bite-sized episodes rather than directly contributing to the central thread.

However, what ongoing story that is there is filled with gaping holes. For instance, it’s never really all that clear why Valerian and Laureline needed to retrieve the converter for the humans in the first place; it’s just that it’s needed to resolve the story further down the road. There are also various big reveals later on that I can’t talk about for fear of spoilers - as much as I want to due to the fact that they completely disregard basic rules of logic and plausibility.

Poor casting

The film’s other main issue is the casting. Again, the performances largely take a back seat to all of the visual extravagances, but the main players here are noticeably weak during the occasional scenes when they are centre stage. Cara Delevingne (as with Suicide Squad) is the place where acting goes to die; she’s pure stiff petulance graced with just two expressions, one of which (smiling) is only used a handful of times. Dane DeHaan is better but he’s still weak, lacking the Harrison Ford-style charm to make his arrogant rogue seem particularly likable. I’ve got nothing against Clive Owen, but here he’s just miscast.

The best performances here only feature during one of the film’s numerous episodes. Firstly, we get a wonderfully slick-talking turn by Ethan Hawke as a pimp. Secondly, we get Rihanna as a shape-shifting illegal (literal) alien, who adds some surprising and much-needed (albeit sadly brief) heart to the film.

It’s not that bad

For all of its faults, I don’t want to kick Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets too hard. It’s a feast for the eyes and the dreams, almost like 1,000 planets’ worth of concepts stuffed into one movie. It’s a pity the film underneath them isn’t that great, but nonetheless, I can imagine it going on to become a cult classic with time in the same way as the likes of Flash Gordon, Starcrash and Besson’s previous SF epic The Fifth Element have become.

Runtime: 137 mins

Dir: Luc Besson

Script: Luc Besson, from a comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

Where is it showing in Edinburgh and Glasgow?

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Showtimes in Cameo Edinburgh

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