Does Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hold up to The Fifth Element?
Nearly a year ago I first caught wind of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It was some article in either Film School Rejects or The Ringer talking about exciting upcoming projects. Valerian was billed as the return to hard sci-fi from legendary director Luc Besson. That’s all I needed to know. I was down.
I knew nothing about the Valerian comics and attempts to find them at the local library — or even Amazon — fell short. Everything was out of print with new version promised later in the year. The world of Valerian that Besson would bring to life would remain a mystery.
Luc Besson is an amazing writer and director. He’s responsible for Leön: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, The Transporter, Taken, Lucy, and The Fifth Element — which Besson created twenty-years ago this year. Valerian marked Besson’s return to hard sci-fi. Considering what he was able to accomplish with the technology available in 1997, my mind nearly exploded with the possibilities that Valerian could bring.
Then the first trailer dropped.
My wife probably watched it a dozen times that first day. Me, not wanting to get spoiled, only watched it once. I had seen enough and was ready for the film.
That was more than six months ago. Yesterday I saw the film. If you haven’t, I will probably spoil it for you. You’ve been warned.
Perhaps thinking Besson could recapture the magic of The Fifth Element twenty years later was a mistake going in. Perhaps it was too much pressure. Perhaps the expectations were set too high. Whatever it was, Valerian did not deliver.
Even for hard sci-fi, the cold open was a bit much. We’re left to interpret what is going on with no understandable dialogue for nearly ten minutes. I sat there thinking, “this film is not going to make any money.”¹
After the open, we’re introduced to the universe that Valerian inhabits. The creation of the City of a Thousand Planets is explained in such a way that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it unfold. The universe is massive and the film properly conveyed that weight.
Then we were introduced to the main characters, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline.
To say these characters were not properly developed would be a gross understatement. Either intentional to the plot or portrayed by the actors, these are not interesting people. They are the embodiment of the Mary Sue character troupe. At no point did I ever feel they were in danger and, while you could argue there was character growth, it wasn’t anything more than words spoken by the characters.
The Valerian and Laureline are portrayed by Dean DeHaan and Cara Delevingne respectively. Emotion is neither of their strong suits. I don’t know for certain, but it seemed like DeHaan watched Keanu Reeves’ performance in Point Break and said, “that’s my Valerian.” His voice work and persona was very Johnny Utah, for better or for worse.
The visuals were gorgeous and the technology at Besson’s fingertips helped give even the smallest details a sense of beauty and grandeur. Though amazing visuals and an extremely interesting universe were not enough to save Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It simply was not a good film.
Yesterday evening I put The Fifth Element on. Twenty years have passed yet it is still a masterpiece. Some of the technology — particularly the images on computers screens — feel very dated but everything else still holds up. Like the Fifth Element herself, the film is perfect.
Maybe I shouldn’t have expected so much from Valerian. Perhaps if I had no idea that Luc Besson was behind it, I would have enjoyed it more than I did. Regardless, if I never saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets again, I’d probably be alright. Which is sad, because the universe has so much potential for additional stories, I just don’t want to see Major Valerian and Sargent Laureline in them.
¹: This film did not make any money. With a budget of $177.2 million, Valerian made only $17 million in the opening weekend and just $6 million (estimated) in week two.