Opening weekend review–The ultimate sci-fi fix: Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a visionary sci-fi, space fantasy

Review by C.J. Bunce

This weekend sci-fi and fantasy fans finally get to see French director Luc Besson’s singular vision decades in the planning as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives in theaters.  An adaptation of the fifty-year-old, popular, French comic book series Valerian and Laureline, the film delivers in a magnificent, grandiose way only Besson could deliver.  As with his sci-fi classic The Fifth Element, Besson–who also directed Lucy, The Professional, and La Femme Nikita–has added another genre-defining film to the list of must-see sci-fi movies.  If there’s any criticism due, it may be that the film in places is too much like The Fifth Element, but where Valerian falls short, it makes up for it with wall to wall action and alien creations that look nothing like anything Hollywood has ever produced.  It’s rounded out with spectacular production design by Hugues Tissandier (Lucy, Taken, The Transporter) and a riveting score by composer Alexandre Desplat (The Golden Compass, Argo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

  • Best use of 3D cinematography in a movie to date?  Check.
  • Best visual depiction of strange new worlds and new alien life in a film to date?  Check.
  • Best hold-onto-your-seats spaceship rides through these strange new places?  Check.

Credit Besson, WETA Digital, Industrial Light and Magic, and hundreds of other visual effects, special effects, make-up, costume and prop creators–Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like nothing you’ve seen.  Combine 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Fifth Element, and you’ll have an idea of Besson’s big screen epic filled with all sorts of wonderful images.

Valerian is a snapshot of a day in progress in the life of two cocky space pilots.  The leads are two attractive, snarky and sassy, young and very modern, would-be lovers in a typical “will they or won’t they” set up–Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-man 2, True Blood), and Laureline, played by model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne (Suicide Squad, Anna Karenina).  Besson peppers the landscape of the big action sequences with the bare threads of their relationship, showing us if their relationship has room to be anything else beyond mere partners.  Beyond their through-line is a race to uncover the mystery behind an Avatar-inspired race of willowy peacelovers ravaged by war.  How are they related to a vision seen by Valerian, and are these peaceful people really the good guys or the bad guys?  But most of the time Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets is a non-stop rollercoaster ride as the leads assemble clues and rescue each other a time or two, as they try also to rescue a missing commander and uncover the mystery behind two unusual items in their possession: a rare magical pearl and a wide-eyed, pint-sized creature with extraordinary abilities.

Valerian co-stars John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane, Argo, The Big Lebowski) voicing an alien gangster, Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) voicing an alien leader, Clive Owen (Children of Men, Sin City, The Bourne Identity) as the missing commander, musician/composer Herbie Hancock as the Defence Minister, Ethan Hawke (Gattaca, The Magnificent Seven, Attack on Precinct 13, Alive, White Fang) as a pimp in the over-the-top vein of The Fifth Element’s Ruby Rhod, singer Rihanna (Star Trek Beyond) as a shape shifting performance artist in the vein of The Fifth Element’s Diva Plavalaguna, and even sci-fi/fantasy great Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke, Galavant) in a cameo for good measure.  But the notable performance goes to Sam Spruell (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Hurt Locker) as General Okto-Bar, a Holmesian sleuth trying to put all the pieces together.

Rollicking space chases, good humor, an awe-inspiring interdimensional city marketplace, an endless procession of alien races making first contact with Earthlings, a science fiction and fantasy canvas that takes Flash Gordon elements into the 28th century–Besson’s style reflects both his “go big or go home” attitude tempered with a simple 21st century style, urban love story.  Besson is also an inspiring and progressive leader in the film industry–back in 2015 we reported here at on a costume contest for this film, and Besson included the dozen winning costumes in the film along with film credits for the winners.

If you’re tired of the same old thing at the movies, give Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets a try.  Besson’s brand of storytelling is unique and not for everyone, but to his credit he doesn’t waste time with pointless origin backstory, and he doesn’t speak down the audience, assuming all along the audience can keep up with the film’s high-concept sci-fi and fantasy elements.  But make sure you see it in 3D in your largest local theater that is equipped with the best DTS sound system.  You’ll feel the roar of the spaceship flybys, and feel immersed in the layered fantasy environments.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives in theaters across the U.S. this weekend and in limited release at select locations beginning tonight.





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