Valerian and the city of a thousand planets: beaucoup de grésille, pas de steak

By Liam Lacey

Here’s my advice regarding Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. By all means go and see it for the visual pop and fizz. But if you really want to enjoy the experience, plug your ears so you don’t have to endure the dialogue, suffer through the acting or follow the plot. As a moving wall poster, though, Valerian is just great.

Take your Star Wars, your Star Trek and your Avatar, put them through a wood-chipper and reassemble and you might get something like Luc Besson’s eye-popping, jaw-dropping and mostly head-scratching space fantasy. Considered the most expensive French movie ever made (somewhere in the $200 million U.S. range), it’s a vast and gaudy display of design and special effects that should amuse all lovers of shiny objects. Things only gets annoying when the film makes the occasional half-hearted stab at coherence.

The source material is a French comic book, Valerian and Laureline, started 50 years ago by writer Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières, purportedly one of the inspirations for Geroge Lucas’s Star Wars. Illustrator Mézières was also the conceptual production designer for Besson’s last display of sci-fi eye-candy, The Fifth Element, a film mocked at the time, which has gained cult status since then.

The “city of a thousand planets” of the title is actually a 28th-century intergalactic space station known as Alpha, which has grown like a coral reef over the centuries as 17 million friendly aliens and humans have added on to the vast pile, under the management of glowering Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), whose name must be an alien anagram for “I’m clearly the bad guy.”

There’s also something foul and radioactive in the core of Alpha, which has to be rooted out. Enter our protagonists, a couple of intergalactic special agents, Major Valerian (a dozy-looking Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (furry-browed English model Cara Delevingne). As they race around various psychedelic landscapes, the couple exchange stilted banter, in which he woos her and she pretends to reject him crossly. Sometimes, they get video instructions from their boss, played, unexpectedly, by jazz musician Herbie Hancock. Besson’s dialogue ranges from inert to atrocious.

“You humans are so predictable,” says a child-sized duck-faced alien to Laureline.  “You’ve obviously never met a woman,” she barks back, pulling out her gun and shooting at the duck-creature’s feet.

There’s also a sentimental subplot about a planet called Mur, where life is a perpetual day at the beach. The inhabitants are a pale species of slinky androgynous super-models known as Pearls who hang around the oceanside. They have a lot in common with Avatar’s Na’vi in that they’re stand-ins for indigenous people who live “in harmony with nature,” and don’t wear much clothing. The Pearls have lost their most valuable possession, called a Mul Converter, which looks like a toy armadillo and has the ability to sweat out duplicates of anything it eats, like a biological 3-D printer. 

Speaking of duplicates, I should also mention John Goodman, who voices an obese creature with copyright-testing similarities to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hutt. And in Alpha’s Blade Runner-like red-light district, there’s a pimp called, naturally, Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke, hamming at warp-speed). He sells time with a sex slave named Bubble (singer Rihanna) who does an impression of Liza Minnelli from Cabaret. Bubble can also wrap her shape-shifting body around another person, a technique that provides Valerian with a useful disguise and gets Laureline terribly jealous.

There’s a possible argument that Besson, with all his visual bloat, isn’t just reworking George Lucas and James Cameron, but channelling another visually creative French sci-fi director: Georges Méliès and his 1902 classic, A Trip to the Moon. But the latter film had a couple of big advantages over Besson’s space trip: It was short and it was silent.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  Written and directed by Luc Besson.  Starring: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Clive Owen, Rihanna, and Ethan Hawke. Opens wide July 21.


Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather