The idea of a vast, diverse and interconnected universe is one that has inspired science fiction authors and filmmakers for decades. The sheer mystery of deep space and all it could hold enables these creative minds to construct worlds with infinite imagination, lending to the highly complex and fascinating universes of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and even “Guardians of the Galaxy.” With his new film “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” director Luc Besson ("Lucy") attempts to replicate the tropes of interspecies diplomacy, menacing universal threats, planet-destroying technology and sacrificial love that define the film’s great predecessors. However, “Valerian” contains major flaws that squash any potential it might have had to gain even a modicum of critical acclaim.
The film is set in the 26th century and is centered around Alpha, the previous International Space Station that centuries before exceeded Earth’s escape velocity and was launched into deep space. What was once a humble satellite station in Earth’s orbit has centuries later become a planet-sized hub for aliens of a thousand civilizations to coexist. The film’s plot follows special government operatives Valerian (Dane Dehaan, “Kill Your Darlings”) and Lauraline (Cara Delevingne, “Paper Towns”) as they work to neutralize a mysterious threat to the station and inadvertently uncover systematic corruption. The plot structure is both formulaic and predictable, with battles, comic relief and help from supporting characters appearing like clockwork. Furthermore, the film’s major conflict — the decimation of an entire civilization at the hands of a bloodthirsty and apathetic Alpha Commander — plays out on too large of a scale and with too little motivation.
Despite its hackneyed plot, “Valerian” actually does a good job at creating inventive, unique and somewhat non-derivative alien species. The luminescent avatar-esque species of the shell paradise, the cerebral jellyfish that feeds on memories, the prophetic and greedy gargoyle creatures and more — all present refreshing ideas on alien species. The film seems to take pains not to copy the aliens of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” a difficult task given the extreme breadth of imagination in both franchises. Moreover, while Alpha as a central hub for intra universal species is not exactly original, the extent to which the species occupy the same space in different biomes is cool.
However, the film fails to fully use its own world-building. While Alpha is home to a thousand different alien species, the government that controls it is exclusively human. Overall, the film places a heavy bias on humans and power; the Commander had the power to destroy an entire planet, and only Valerian and Lauraline have the power to enable the survivors to reestablish their civilization. Furthermore, power in this movie is attributed exclusively to white cis-gendered men, as evident in the film’s title, which credits Valerian but not his equal partner. With this preoccupation on human power, the film effectively diminishes its own creativity, ultimately becoming frustrating, boring and one-dimensional.
The film also rests heavily on the relationship between the two protagonists. The writing attempts to create a sexy duo who flirt and tease while kicking ass but whose relationship is ultimately based on deep loyalty and love. Yet with a complete lack of build-up or backstory, this forced chemistry is wholly superficial and uncomfortable. There is power behind leaving things unsaid, and the chemistry between the two leads would have benefitted overwhelmingly if hinted at instead of outright explained (Valerian literally proposes to Lauraline maybe eight minutes into the movie).
There is a long list of reasons why “Valerian” doesn’t work, including its stale acting, threadbare plot and gender- and race-based allocations of power. What the film gains in creative species inception, it quickly loses in its inability to use this creativity in any meaningful way. In the contemporary media landscape, it takes more than colorful CGI and hot actors to hold up a blockbuster. Audiences expect more, and “Valerian” overwhelmingly disappoints.