VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS Not pictured: a city, a thousand planets.

From its awe-inspiring opening montage, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets immediately immerses its audience in a brilliant, idiosyncratic sci-fi universe—one that’s unlike anything we’ve seen for 20 years, since Besson’s last brilliant, idiosyncratic sci-fi universe, in The Fifth Element. Those of us who loved The Fifth Element will get exactly what we’ve been missing with Valerian. It’s a delight.

If you’ve read the comics Valerian is based on—text-heavy, ‘70s French sci-fi exploration comics that Besson loved as a child—be prepared for Valerian to stray heavily. In the comics, Laureline (Cara Delevingne) is a French woman from the 11th century who radically advances to become the equal of space adventurer Valerian (Dane DeHaan) in the space of a few issues. In Besson’s film, there’s no mention of time displacement; she’s casually referred to as “Ivy League.” This might be more realistic—but since nothing else in the film feels constrained by realism, I’m not sure why they bothered. If I seem nostalgic for Laureline’s comics backstory, it’s because I’ve always liked the idea that an 11th century woman, given the proper space opportunities, would be able to outpace her 28th century counterpart. But it’s better, probably, to just let go and enjoy the film.

And there is a lot to enjoy, depending on your tolerance for CGI: Thanks to both rote plotting and the amount of Valerian that was shot with digital sets, digital creatures, and digital everything, the film often feels like a video game: Bust through these walls to get to that thing in time! Side quest and find a person instead of just going to where they obviously are! There’s even a save point-style relationship between Valerian and his ship’s computer.


One thing that feels not just futuristic but legitimately progressive is Valerian’s inclusion of alien cultures, not just as cool monsters to ogle but as characters whose cooperation must be sought and safeguarded.


But for all of Valerian’s awkwardness, it does so much right. One thing that feels not just futuristic but legitimately progressive is Valerian’s inclusion of alien cultures, not just as cool monsters to ogle but as characters whose cooperation must be sought and safeguarded. Much of Valerian takes place on Alpha, better known as “the City of a Thousand Planets,” which once belonged to human beings and now belongs to everyone—creating a tenuous net of allegiance that must be preserved. That’s a forward-thinking concept and something that’s pretty hard to portray. True, it ends up making the plot a little sticky near the end—but a sticky plot is very much part of any ambitious sci-fi movie.

It’s actually a little jarring when Valerian backs away from its big ideas to focus on Valerian and Laureline. I went into Valerian ready to be charitable to Delevingne, since she only has few films under her belt. But it’s DeHaan who proves the problem: He’s being asked to portray a womanizing, macho space officer, and one can't help but realize DeHaan’s lines were written for someone with far more charisma than he has. It’s even tougher to swallow that, after 7,000 years of technological progress, Valerian’s multi-species, galaxy-spanning society would find itself slave to the social conventions we struggle with today: Valerian is trying to date Laureline, but she thinks if she accepts, he’ll immediately lose interest. BORING. That said, Laureline obviously loves Valerian; she saves him again and again. I recommend chocking their weird interplay up to the way we sometimes just don’t understand the relationship dynamics of others—especially French others.

Although my commentary here sounds like complaining a lot, I liked Valerian! (I like the plot-heavy qualities of sci-fi. I like video games.) Throughout, Valerian’s surreal visuals are nothing short of incredible, and Besson’s imagination still proves deserving of applause. When Besson was younger, he reportedly dreamed of a world that could only be portrayed through illustration. As an adult, he’s worked hard to close the gap between what’s possible in 2D comic books and what’s possible in 3D cinema. Despite all its flaws—and thanks to all its astonishments—Valerian is a marvel. Sit back and enjoy the light show.