Review: Valerian and a City of a Thousand Planets

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The five minute and fifteen second-long sequence that opens Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, hands down, the single finest sequence of film Luc Besson has ever – and, likely, will ever – produce. It’s breathtaking, a work of visual art that embraces the classical optimism of the science fiction genre in a way you genuinely can’t remember having seen before. With the whimsical movements of David Bowie’s seminal Space Oddity playing atop, and taking cues from The Martian, the opening credits sequence of Enterprise, and the central premise of Babylon 5, Valerian kicks off with a sequence so absolutely baller that it’d have to be the single greatest science-fiction adventure flick ever put to film to even vaguely live up to it’s opening. And sadly it’s not.

Based on a series of French graphic novels, the story sees intergalactic agents Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) tasked with retrieving an alien artefact that swiftly draws them into a plot to destroy the intergalactic hub of science and knowledge from within. But as they venture to discover just who and what is behind it all, they begin to suspect that they’re not entirely in possession of all the facts, the search for answers proving their deadliest mission yet.

Naturally, once you’ve got a sci-fi movie as beloved as The Fifth Element under your belt, it’s going to be a tough act to follow should you ever plan a return to the genre, and Valerian does indeed wheeze under the weight of its predecessor. That said, it’s a really jolly romp full of wholly delightful ideas and inventive set-pieces all of its own. Hell, one solitary chase sequence alone manages to squeeze in dimension-hopping, phase-shifting, wormholes, and augmented reality in as little as four or five minutes. It’s one of the wildest, most jaw-dropping works the genre’s seen in years, and that’s before you even get to the revelation that Rihanna becomes its breakout character.

Dane DeHaan, however, proves a stumbling block that simply adds to the heft of The Fifth Element bearing down on proceedings. Miscast to the point of outright bewilderment, DeHaan simply can’t cut the mustard as a swaggering space adventurer with a near decade-long military record (he looks about 25, at best) and a history of charming scores of women into the sack (despite displaying no game whatsoever). Forty years ago, it’d have been a Harrison Ford role, Kurt Russell if you leapt a decade further on, Bruce Willis the decade after that, and, frankly, DeHaan has nowhere near the slick movie-star macho appeal of any of those.

Cara Delevingne however, fares much better – trading barbs with the best of them and showing a surprising grasp of the sassy comedic nuances of being both the scientist and love interest of a large scale sci-fi romp. Clive Owen’s phoning it in meanwhile as the duo’s hardline commander, but he’s mercifully overshadowed by a very effective turn from Sam Spruell as his second-in-command. Like The Fifth Element though, it’s the wild supporting characters who steal the show, with Ethan Hawke having the time of his life as an outer-space pimp, and Rihanna as the shape-shifting prostitute Bubble. Rihanna’s easily the movie’s highlight, her introductory dance sequence doubtless set to be Valerian’s most memorable moment.

A thousand times more outright entertaining than, for instance, Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets never lives up to the frankly epic movement with which it begins, but it’s never less than entertaining and offers at least a half a dozen inventive ideas in the mere background of its average scene. It’s just a shame it’s lumbered with a lead who can’t live up to the talents of the model and the singer standing on either side of him, in a movie that itself can’t quite match up to the delightful work before it.

That opening though: wow. They’ll shift a million home release copies of Valerian purely for the sake of rewatching that over and over and over.

Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets is in cinemas nationwide from Wednesday, August 2nd; rated 12A. Check out the trailer below.

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