“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” offers a visually stimulating universe

The bigger the budget, the safer a film usually ends up playing things. It’s rare that anything approaching blockbuster status feels risky or revolutionary. Most of the time, big time summer fare especially feels as generic and safe as possible. Every so often though, a release hits that has a huge budget and yet also seems like a gigantic dare. This week, something of that sort hits screens in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The movie hopes to create a brand new cinematic world, one that will capture your attention. Whether it does or not remains to be seen, but the ambition is certainly there. Science fiction fans may very well eat it up. Time will tell. At the very least, it’s a July release that will stand out from the pack, by and large.

The film is an adaptation of the French comic book Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (obviously). For this story, we follow the duo of Special Ops agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they investigate a threat to Alpha, a large space station metropolis that’s home to species from, you guessed it, a thousand different planets. Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the dark forces at hand and attempt to safeguard not just Alpha itself, but the very future of the universe. It’s beautiful to look at, even if occasionally the story doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense. Luckily Besson adapts the comic and directs here, representing a passion project of sorts for him. The cast, in addition to DeHaan and Delevingne, include Elizabeth Debicki, Herbie Hancock, Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke, John Goodman, Mathieu Kassovitz, Clive Owen, Sam Spruell, and Kris Wu, plus Rihanna. Alexandre Desplat contributes the score, while cinematography is by Thierry Arbogast. The latter especially is partnering with Besson for some noteworthy work.

Without question, the visuals of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are beyond reproach. Besson spares no expense in creating a whole unique universe, full of interesting creatures, planets, and environments. The action starts off pretty great but tails off in the second half, while the cast is kind of left to their own devices. That side of the film is just kind of ordinary, while the look of it is anything but. Visually, the movie is among the year’s best. As has usually been the case, Besson the director outpaces Besson the writer. The total package is somewhat uneven, but worthy of a mild recommendation overall, especially if you dig sci-fi. Expectations should be kept in check, but still. It’s well worth seeing for the spectacle alone.

As a slight bonus today, here is how I would rank Besson’s top ten best films to date:

10. The Family
9. Subway
8. The Lady
7. Angel-A
6. Lucy
5. The Big Blue
4. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
3. The Fifth Element
2. La Femme Nikita
1. Léon: The Professional

Basically, this Friday brings something visually splendid with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It looks amazing, there’s no question about that. If the central adventure is not incredibly captivating, the world building on display and ambition is top notch. That more than balances the scale, at least in my humble opinion. Besson’s fans will be delighted, especially if you’re a big fan of The Fifth Element. If this becomes a new franchise, well, I won’t mind that one bit. Besson leaves nothing on the table and spends every penny of his budget. Trust me, it shows on the screen. That much is absolutely undeniable. Give it a shot and see what you think…

Be sure to check out Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He also contributes to several other film-related websites.

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