Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets seems to have a lot going for it. Based on a beloved series of French comics, it's from the imaginative director of The Fifth Element (Luc Besson) and freakin' Rihanna is in it.
But then the humans in the movie start talking, and suddenly Valerian is less interesting.
Shortly after the movie begins, we get an idyllic look at the beach of a foreign planet. The pale blue humanoid aliens that inhabit it are clearly in tune with nature, living off of the land and giving back to it. When spaceships crash through the atmosphere, this paradise becomes collateral damage in a war the species wasn't involved in. Without a single word in English, these opening moments convey a touching story with gorgeous CG visuals, and we care for the nameless people involved.
This sequence is quickly revealed to be an impressive dream/memory, but while we do wrap back around to it by the end, these aliens aren't the movie's stars.
The characters at the heart of the film are human special agents Maj. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Though the partners are also a couple, their relationship seems strained. Laureline doesn't think Valerian has what it takes to commit to her (and only her) for the long haul. Valerian seems desperate to convince her otherwise.
Not only is this relationship a walking cliche, it's also not very convincing. Every romantic interaction between the two young agents feels strained, and while you might be able to believe that Valerian is infatuated with Laureline, there is no good reason given for why she would reciprocate the feeling.
What you can believe, though, is that both characters are very good at their job, which involves a lot of running and shooting. An early action sequence, which plays out like a cross-dimensional, futuristic heist set simultaneously in a virtual reality-esque market and an open desert, is thrilling to watch and an impressive showcase of special effects and clever ideas.
Both characters also get pretty equal screen time and are fairly equal in skill, which does make one wonder why Laureline's name was cut out of the film's title. (The comic series it's based on is called Valerian and Laureline.) But I digress.
The titular City of a Thousand Planets is a thriving space station on which nearly every known species in the galaxy is represented. It's a setting in which imagination can -- and sometimes does -- thrive. Yet large chunks of the plot revolve around scenarios that are all-too familiar, such as babysitting a high-ranking (and immediately suspicious) military officer, rescuing a beloved partner from a dangerous situation and discovering that, shocker, maybe the government hasn't always been 100 percent honest about its actions.
Clocking in at two hours and 17 minutes, the movie has a lot of unnecessary fat. There is an underwater sequence that just happens for the sake of happening, and the introduction of Rihanna's shapeshifting alien character is a drawn-out pseudo-striptease with some nice dance moves but too little narrative justification. There is also a character death (spoiler?) that seems to happen only in a misguided attempt to make the audience feel emotions that the story doesn't earn on its own merits.
It's hard to argue with how good some of those visual effects look, though. Valerian is visually splendid and a feast for the eyes, and if you just want something pretty to look at while you eat candy in a dark theater, it can fill that need nicely.
Valerian is sci-fi at its most fantastical. It's a shame that the dialogue, acting and anything involving humans too often feels stilted and unbelievable.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (C+)
PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language). 137 minutes. In wide release.