How do you impress an audience that's almost entirely desensitized to special effects?
Flawless computer-generated effects are no longer a novelty; they're expected. Even this summer's Wonder Woman was criticized for what people perceived to be lackluster special effects, despite its $150 million budget. Post- Avatar/Star Wars/Avengers, there's not much we haven't seen before in terms of on-screen imagery. Now that technology can make even the most outrageous of city-decimating battles and superhero violence look real, the boundaries of surrealistic special effects have to be pushed beyond belief to be truly impressive.
That's no easy feat, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which opens area-wide on Friday, delivers.
The sci-fi flick takes place a few hundred years in the future on a far-off planet whose population has been annihilated. On another planet, light-years away, we're introduced to heroes Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a pair of precocious soldiers and partners-in-crime. They follow orders to retrieve a valuable object from another galaxy and deliver it to a military base on Alpha, aka the City of a Thousand Planets.
The "city" is really a massive planet with a host of environments and millions of species peacefully coexisting. Valerian and Laureline learn that the densely populated space utopia is in danger of total destruction due to a mysterious, radioactive mass developing in its core. Their mission to stop this from happening launches them into a wild intergalactic odyssey that's way more than the young agents bargained for.
This is a highly simplified version of Valerian's plot, which is mostly a breakneck jumble of rescues interspersed with battles, chase scenes and even politics. It's not always easy to make sense of, but it's a thrill to watch.
The film's stars, unfortunately, don't measure up to the magic around them. While London-born Delevingne has nailed an American accent, we're not sold on the idea of the supermodel as an actress. And DeHaan, on the surface, epitomizes a broody rebel, but he creates zero chemistry with Delevingne and lacks the charm of other classic space heroes, like Han Solo or even Matt Kowalski, George Clooney's character in Gravity. But maybe it's unfair to pin all the blame on them; the film's dialogue is so cringe-inducing ("If you don't help me find Valerian, this bullet's gonna find you") that maybe it bogged them down.
Sci-fi films, however dazzling, suffer without solid characters. Valerian's major flaw, which might inhibit the independent (but pricey) film from spawning a smash franchise, is that its cast is lacking. Each character is a cookie-cutter archetype; the extent of Valerian and Laureline's personalities, motivations and backgrounds is established in a single flirty bit of expositional back-and-forth. He's a bad-boy rebel, despite being one of "the government's" best soldiers, and she's an Ivy League-educated, no-nonsense brain with a soft spot for her male counterpart. There's not enough time in any film to pack in 20-plus comic books' worth of material, but with merely this (and Delevingne and DeHaan's uninspired performances), it's difficult to root for them.
The other inherently frustrating thing about this film is that something takes away from its visual wonder, and that's its depiction of women. Laureline's the only human woman with more than a couple lines, and while Rihanna is mesmerizing as an alien shape shifter, her screen time is tragically limited. Plus. Laureline, despite being Valerian's partner, is often stuck in the control room or keeping watch while he tries to save the world. Her uniform is also the same color as his, but she dons a miniskirt — not so practical for intergalactic battle.
Despite all this, Valerian achieves the nearly impossible. It shows us a cinematic world truly unlike anything we've seen before. Writer-director Luc Besson's passion for the project clearly comes across, and while its human characters may fail to impress, its aliens are gorgeous and inventive. Its underlying message is a powerful one, and it boasts a truly satisfying conclusion. For this, it demands at least one viewing.