RECAP: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017): Luc Besson

On a distant planet called Mül lives a species of tall, lithe blue people. Known to the outside world as Pearls, they live in seashell houses, harvest pearls (the oyster kind we understand) from the calm seas, and own cute scaly pets called converters.

One day, as the film begins, the perfect blue sky is breached by dozens of spaceships in flames. Crashing to the ground, the ships incinerate the sky and the sand.

Several Pearls, sensing imminent death, flee to an already crashed ship and seal themselves inside. An enormous spaceship careens toward the planet, crashes, and sends outward a fiery dust wave. One Pearl, caught outside the ship door, is consumed by fire. But before she dies, she sends her soul into the universe in the form of a blue wave, a wave that finds a new home in a young man named Valerian.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Valerian and Laureline, two skilled government agents of the cultural melting pot that is the space station Alpha, track an unknown species that has kidnapped their commanding officer. 

Hero (0/10)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a graphic novel by a French author and illustrator named Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, Valerian and Laureline. Luc Besson, the director, chose to exclude Laureline from the title of his film. The “Thousand Planets” part gets across the sci-fi theme more effectively, but at the expense of subjugating Laureline, Valerian’s partner, to a sidekick.

Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is a federal agent working for the humanoid government of the Alpha space station, the titular city, and he’s in search of a creature called a converter, the last of its kind, to return to Alpha for safe keeping.

Before Valerian begins his mission he receives a strange dream of a dying blue person. He’ll keep it in mind for later. Until then, he’s got to get this converter, and he’ll be partnering again with Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne).

Valerian describes Laureline as his partner, and he refuses to work without her. He outranks her, but that doesn’t stop him from falling in love with her. Or, maybe, he wants to sleep with her and add her to his “playlist,” a black book of lovers, so to speak. Laureline knows all about this, and she practically rolls her eyes at him the entire movie.

We meet this pair on Laureline’s birthday. Valerian’s forgotten it. He thinks that’s fine, because “it’s obvious” that she’s attracted to him, and who wouldn’t be attracted to a scrawny pale kid with dead eyes and zero voice inflection?

The pair banter for a while. Valerian is a walking cliche with his bang list and his claim of “they mean nothing to me.” He just hasn’t found the right one, baby, eh? And Laureline, well, she’s uppity with her Ivy League education.

It’s a cliched start for these two. Laureline claims Valerian fears commitment, so he rattles of his nine years in the service and seven medals. Valerian proposes to Laureline. Blah blah blah.

Hang on, what? Proposal? You heard him right, Valerian proposes to Laureline. Sounds like the latest move in a game to get her to sleep with him, but Valerian seems convinced of his sincerity. Laureline is also, and that’s what scares her.

OK, what’s the story, again?

The converter, right. Valerian and Laureline steal the converter and bring it to Alpha, where the last-of-its-kind creature that can replicate anything it’s fed becomes an important cog in the movie’s machinations.

Commander of human forces Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) believes a radioactive area exists in the center of Alpha and is growing. He wants to inform the other bipedal citizens at a security council meeting. Valerian and Laureline accompany him as personal security.

At this meeting a squad of Pearls kidnap Filitt and nearly kill Valerian and Laureline, who spend the rest of the movie trying to find the commander.

With that proposal hanging over their heads, Valerian’s and Laureline’s relationship faces tests in the next 90 minutes. It’s a rough world out there. Laureline is twice nearly eaten and Valerian endures a sexy striptease from Rihanna. Tough job, somebody’s gotta do it.

Valerian crashes through Alpha system and flies after a Pearl ship only to be lost in a decommissioned area. Laureline is captured by the insular and hungry Boulan. All the time they argue.

Valerian flies a sky jet to save the commander and Laureline barks at him to go faster. Valerian sideseat drives Laureline. Laureline rescues Valerian after he’s crashed and she gets mad because he doesn’t thank her. Valerian touches her every chance he gets. These acts qualify as sexual tension, I guess.

When not fighting each other, Valerian and Laureline fight everyone else. Combative people, they can’t turn it off. They argue with their commanding officers, friends, informants, and enemies perceived and real. They saunter around with the easy confidence of youth that’s meant to evoke toughness but comes off as arrogance.

And that’s the problem with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Clive Owen is 53 years old, DeHaan and Delevingne are combined 57 years old, and they are nearly his equal, if not in rank then in importance.

Like Commander Filitt, Valerian and Laureline report directly to the Defense Minister, who tasks them with the most important mission in the galaxy. On the mission they command a team of crack troops at least 15 years older.

Both lead actors look as if they skipped some 8:00 AM classes to be on set, and their youthful appearance subtracts from their legitimacy. Can you imagine DeHaan playing Indiana Jones? That’s what he’s trying to do here. I never bought them as accomplished, skilled soldiers. Their poor stunt work didn’t help, nor did their scrawny bodies. Can a movie succeed when its two stars dimly shine?

Villain (2/10)

Commander Filitt turns out to be the bad guy. He lied about there being an expanding radioactive core in Alpha’s center. Perhaps he lied about sending other squads there that never returned.

A hard-nosed jerk from the start, Filitt always rubbed me the wrong way. Turns out there’s good reason–he’s the catalyst for the film’s events.

A late-movie flashback provides context. In the space above Mül, Filitt leads forces against some enemy. The dogfighting is fierce and brutal, and, by Filitt’s count, more than 500,000 of his soldiers died in battle.

To end the battle Filitt orders nuclear missiles launched at the enemy mother ship, which is protected by a force field. The strike succeeds and sends the ship crashing to Mül. It’s this ship that annihilates the Pearls, banishing their people to float in space for years.

Filitt knew Mül to be inhabited, but by “primitive” people. He cared only for his troops. After the battle ended and he was responsible for countless Pearl deaths, he murdered the only human officer who knew of their existence.

Filitt further covered his tracks by classifying all data about Mül, even erasing Pearl DNA from the official record, a move that seems impossible in his DNA-obsessed world.

By the end, when faced with the survivors of his crime, we understand Filitt better. He authorized the missile attack, knowing it would kill Pearls, because his duty is to humans living in Alpha. Had they lost the battle and the war, the station’s economy would have collapsed for years, decades. Would Valerian and Laureline have damned their people to suffer just so a few primitive people no one’s ever heard of could not be exterminated? Would they?

They would. Laureline punches Filitt senseless, and he’s left to be arrested after the Pearls escape.

Filitt makes good points in his rant to save his life and dignity. Shouldn’t those charged with protecting humans, like, say, Valerian and Laureline, worry about humans before they worry about Pearls?

Action/Effects (9/10)

The first extended action piece of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets occurs on a desert planet called Kyrian, where human tourists roam a sun-blasted, wall-enclosed square mile.

The Big Market, as it’s known to folks across star systems, exists in another dimension outside the three humans normally inhabit. The movie does a proper job of preparing viewers for this strange journey by having a tour guide explain it to his guests.

Humans normally wander the desert, but by wearing special glasses they can see the Big Market for what it is–about one million shops in the largest mall in the universe.

Boy, did I need some preparation. Valerian roams the market searching for a converter, the last of its species. He knew what he was doing; I could only watch and marvel.

Valerian carries a box the size of two shoe boxes. He wears orange-framed glasses that allow him to see the market dimension, but somehow he’s invisible to them.

The movie alternates between the two dimensions–desert and market–clearly, allowing the viewers to wrap their heads around the quirky physics at work. One of Valerian’s cohort instructs him on how to use the box. He must type his DNA code once to enter the market dimension, and once again to exit the dimension.

Thanks for the tip. Valerian stalks his prey to a shop where a trader does a deal with two Pearls. These species want to deal, the fat trader offers the converter and the Pearls offer a pearl, with the promise of more to come.

That’s where Valerian comes in. Well, his hand comes in. Valerian announces himself as a federal agent by sticking a gun barrel to the back of the fat guy’s head. Only Valerian’s hand and gun exist in the market dimension, the rest of him sweats it out in the desert world, although all parties can hear Valerian.

This is very confusing, but not to the parties involved. Laureline, who has calmly walked through the desert dimension, speaks to Valerian, telling him she’s going to show up a few feet to his right. Valerian and Laureline can speak to each other, but because Valerian wears the orange glasses he cannot see the desert world where most of his body exists.

Laureline inserts a small box beside the fat trader in the market dimension, where the guy slides the box housing the converter into it and Laureline removes it to the desert dimension. Easy peasy. Valerian gets greedy though, snatching the small pearl as he escapes.

An angry dog-equivalent animal lunges at Valerian’s pistol hand, triggering the gun. Suddenly all the folks in the room, and there are several, shoot as well.

The guy who told Valerian how to work the dimension box steps into the fray with the same dimension box getup as Valerian, except with two guns. He shoots some guards but runs out and is killed by the dog-like creature. Valerian escapes and wanders the streets, shoving ads out of his face.

Meanwhile, a BOLO has gone out to all the market cops, be on the look out for a floating box with a gun sticking out. The announcement says a photograph will follow. How many floating gun boxes can there be?

Laureline walks beside Valerian but must tell him her position. So she can’t see the cop who spots Valerian and shoots him with dozens of large metal balls. The nonlethal orbs attach to Valerian’s box and weigh it down. Valerian, ever the quick thinker and unafraid of falling great distances, uses the weighted box to smash through a grate on which he sits. Valerian crashes through dozens of floors, giving us a tour of the levels of the Big Market.

At the bottom Valerian finds a child playing with toy gun. The kid shoots a paintball into Valerian’s glasses. Valerian removes one of the magnetic balls from his box and gives it to the kid for him to shoot at the cop entering the doorway just ahead. Somehow all these balls are attracted to each other, so the cop is the one getting weighed down by the metal. Valerian runs free, but his dimensional box still won’t work.

Some of the many aliens.

Laureline comes to Valerian’s aid. She pulls some wires loose in the desert dimension while Valerian shoots enemies from his box in the market dimension. They cut it close, literally and figuratively, but she gets Valerian’s hand back in time.

The effects game in Valerian is off the chain. Magnificent to watch, Besson’s vision and the imagination of the original authors meld and shine together. The movie opens with a montage of several alien races greeting humans inside the space station that would become Alpha.

The characters tour the station, allowing us to see the strange creatures and locations in quick succession, and the triumph of the visuals.

Sidekicks (7/8)

I discussed Laureline as de facto sidekick. Let’s explore further the rich world among the Thousand Planets.

The Pearls of Mül anchor the story. The movie opens on their planet and its pristine condition and gentle people. These not-quite-N’avi live in harmony with the land, and all that Noble Savage bull crap until the technologically advanced white people ruin their world and try to eradicate their species in reality and in memory.

Tall, lanky, pale, and with shimmering skin, the Pearls are a tough people. Their surviving members float to Alpha station and hide for decades, learning the crafts of the thousands of species living in the space station, building a ship of their own.

They were about to attain the final piece of their liberation, the last living converter to make more energy pearls, until Valerian swooped in and stole both it and the pearl needed for replication.

Imagine watching your entire planet destroyed by a rival species, patiently plotting a chance to restart your civilization, only to find your one chance stolen by an unwitting member of that same species. You’d go supernova on them.

Not the Pearls. The surviving empress knows that her daughter put her soul on blast and it landed in Valerian. Just roll with it. She loved her daughter so much that she will forgive the entire human species for destroying her home planet because of her daughter’s choice of soul host. Perhaps they are a noble people.

Let’s not ignore Rihanna’s contributions. 

Henchmen (2/8)

The Boulan people are a fat, brown, bug-eyed species living in extreme isolation inside Alpha. They kidnap Laureline and force her to play dress up, wearing an enormous hat that will expose her succulent brain pan when presented to the king of the Boulan. They fight like wobbling whales, blubber uncontrollable and dangerous to all parties.

Stunts (0/6)

Besson allowed his stars to do there stunts, and it shows. Nothing lets you appreciate good art like bad art, and the same applies for the stunts in Valerian.

DeHaan and Delevingne didn’t work out before attempting fight sequences; perhaps they did not train at all. DeHaan’s “skills” are on display during Valerian’s infiltration of the Boulan emperor hall.

Once his cover’s blown, Valerian fends off fat guard after fat guard, slicing and stabbing, spinning and striking, until he’s killed all the chamber guards.

These Boulan creatures are bulbous and about seven feet tall. The actors playing them wore motion capture suits strapped with weight belts to slow them down. They also walked on stilts attached to their ankles.

Despite these hindrances, the Boulan fight faster than DeHaan. Valerian’s attacks are textbook examples of choreographed movements, as if he were acting in slow motion. It looks terrible.

Delevingne has one fight sequence on her own, when she tricks two guards into taking out their handcuffs. I suspect Delevingne moves as slowly and obviously as DeHaan, but clever editing masks this problem, and makes the scene come out well.

Climax (3/6)

“A soldier will always choose death over annihilation.” So says Commander Filitt as Valerian and Laureline try to convince him to call off the attack against the surviving Pearls. They fail. “Annihilate them all,” he orders.

Filitt’s personally controlled Ktron robots open fire. They shoot Pearls and allied humans alike. Another squad enters the command center and starts killing the humans there. It’s a coup d’etat in all but name.

Valerian exits an ancient Apollo command module to join the fray while Laureline watches the commander, and by watch I mean she punches him mercilessly, in a manner that reminded me of the scene in Airplane where passengers line up to beat some sense into a hysteric woman.

Valerian runs through the shimmer wall protecting the Pearl area and starts shooting. He kills three robots with three shots on the run, a spectacular feat. Soon he’s killed three more. He’s hiding in a giant head and killing more robots. The robots are powerless against him.

Pathetic killer robots

Valerian slides down a chute, lands on the shoulders of a robot, and shoots it twice in the head. He slides under another and shoots up through it. Valerian stands and uses the headless body as a shield from all the other robots firing at him. Valerian is the only human left in the fight. Then, on his back and upside down, Valerian kills another six robots. He’s never hit.

While Valerian is making a mockery of autonomous soldiers, the robot squad attacking the command center is held back. A brave soldier is trying to stop the countdown that, when it expires, will detonate a dozen bombs armed around the Pearl area, killing everything. Well, he stops that countdown with one second left.

Part of Alpha explodes from the outside. It’s the Pearl ship, and it’s flying toward a new horizon, to seed a new planet with new Pearls and converters.

A few humans survived the Ktron attack, enough to find Filitt hanging from the ceiling and to arrest him.

Meanwhile, Valerian and Laureline escape Alpha aboard the Apollo command module. They have about two hours before somebody picks them up. Just enough time for Valerian to deliver a birthday present. It’s a ring with a Mül pearl in it. He totally had got that for her weeks ago.

Laureline asks, “Did you really think of this yourself?” Valerian misses her sarcasm and answers, “Yeah.” He proposes again. She kisses him and unzips his shirt. She answers his proposal: “Maybe.”

Jokes (0/4)

Luc Besson movies are, if at all funny, accidentally so. Valerian makes an attempt at comedy so egregiously bad that its poetic license should be revoked.

Valerian and Laureline walk toward what they believe to be the dead zone. Valerian continues to feel a connection to the Pearls of Mül, though he doesn’t know why. He feels drawn to them, as if the woman from his dreams is a part of him.

Laureline stops, and a smile creeps across her face. I know what’s coming. You know what’s coming. Only Valerian does not know what’s coming. Laureline says, “So, there’s a woman inside you.” Valerian rolls his eyes and literally says, “Ha ha.”

Terrible. Am I more offended by the lame gender shaming or the lame joke delivery? It doesn’t matter. This joke BOMBED.

Setting (4/4)

World building is Besson’s specialty, and Valerian is his Fury Road. I sure wish the rest of the movie was as great.

The city of a thousand planets is Alpha space station. What began as the meeting of American and Soviet spacecraft evolved into Americans meeting Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Africans, and then humans meeting dozens of alien species interested in Earth.

Eventually Alpha is too dangerous for Earth orbit and is sent into the Magellan cloud to float for eons. Four centuries later it is the home to more than 30 million life forms across 3,000 species speaking more than 5,000 languages.

Alpha consists of solid, liquid, and gaseous worlds for its creatures. Some grow cobalt, others are robots that run the banking industry, while others farm cells and are experts in neuroscience.

All these life forms gather at Alpha to exchange knowledge and live in harmony. The station grows, literally expands, at a traceable rate (7% last year).

While chasing the Pearls after they capture Filitt, Valerian crashes through walls to tail them. The camera sticks behind Valerian as he runs, splashes, falls, and crashes through a gaseous world, an aquatic farm, an upside-down greenhouse, and an oxygenated tube in a marvelous sequence highlighting the weirdness and closeness of thousands of different cultures and ecosystems.

Alpha station came from the comic, so it doesn’t belong to Besson. But he did conceive the Big Market. One million stores on 500 levels in a separate dimension on the desert planet Kyrian, the Big Market is a marvel to the viewers AND tourists in the film.

Besson uses the Big Market sequence to prove his chops as Visionary Filmmaker. The characters understand that they exist in different dimensions, so when cops spot a floating box carrying a hand and a gun, they treat it like speeding violation. “Uhhhhh, we got a 246 in level 79: floating gun box.”

The movie blends and cuts the desert dimension and market dimension effortlessly, allowing viewers to wrap their heads around the physics-defying ideas at play.

No location dazzles like planet Mül. Blue sky, blue sea, fine white sand, simmering pearls, conch shell houses–is paradise any better?

No.

Commentary (1/2)

Filitt makes an insightful statement late in the film. He claims that a soldier will always choose death over humiliation, and that was why he decided to annihilate the Pearls. “History is on the march,” he says in a flashback, and some skinny sand lovers won’t stand in its way. Probably countless soldier agree. Trained to kill to preserve life, Many soldiers likely find moral choices zero sum. Gray areas? Not a chance. Filitt would certainly agree with this outlook.

Valerian would as well, but he has a change of heart. Laureline is about to return the last living converter to the Pearls, when Valerian steps in and refuses her the opportunity. He swore an oath of allegiance to the empire or whatever, and the converter is human property. “I play by the rules,” he says, literally moments after he gave up the energy pearl he stole from the Big Market because it was a shiny orb he’d never seen before and he wanted it.

Laureline comes in to explain his problem. “That’s why I don’t want to marry you,” she says, “because you really don’t know what love is. Love is more powerful than anything else. It breaks all the rules.” This gal, she’s a smart one. She explains that the empress can forgive the species that murdered her planet, people, and culture all because her daughter chose to land her soul in a single human.

That the adolescent-looking Delevingne knows this much about love I found insulting, but the sentiment is nice.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

The Noble Savage is a prominent theme in Valerian. Pearls are primitive technologically but advanced philosophically and spiritually. Not offensive per se, but inaccurate to the human condition (and the Pearls are very human-like).

I’m deducting a point for the egregious casting choice of the leads and the reductive nature of their characterization. Also the male gaze of introducing Laureline by her bikini-clad ass.

Others

  • Cool opening montage of two groups shaking hands in space. Bridging gaps and mending wounds is what space travel can do, and Valerian will showcase that.
  • All aliens, apparently, are bipedal humanoids.
  • Laureline heals the converter so it can “get your mojo back.” I guess “mojo” survives centuries into the future.
  • (-1) Several times characters attempt to access files classified for five-star generals and above. When they can read such files, they do so in a control room swarming with people who are certainly not five-star generals. The lack of security astounds.
  • (1) Pearls have laser shields and goo-spewing guns.
  • Laureline is covered in goo three times.

Summary (27/68): 40%

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is best watched on mute. Better to focus on the visuals and ignore the banter of its leads.