'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets' Review: A Strange, Stunning War Amid the Stars

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Photo: STX Entertainment
If you liked Star Wars, you'll have some fun in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, too. Although by comparing the two -- as inevitable as it is -- I'm already setting you up to be disappointed. Which is unfair, since the first installment of Valérian and Laureline, Pierre Christin's landmark sci-fi comic, was published 10 years prior to George Lucas introducing us to his galaxy far, far away, and still...
The titular City of a Thousand Planets, or Alpha, is pieced together over many decades in a prologue dreamily set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." The sequence begins with footage from the end of the space race in 1975, onward to 2020, when the U.S. and Russia start a global amalgamation of space stations, and then so on through the years until aliens come in peace in 2150. Alpha is a utopian society founded on values of unity and some seriously fun creature creation.
Photo: STX Entertainment
Valerian then leaps forward 400 years, in medias res, with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to recover something from someone. There are a lot of moving parts to the plot, too many to get into here, but before long, they are tasked with protecting Alpha's Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) as well as the fate of each of the thousand cities.
Valerian gets top billing, but Laureline is equally the star of this show. Ostensibly, they are police partners, but with the flirty but contentious relationship of many odd couple pairings. She's Ivy League educated, he's an intergalactic playboy. Laureline is strong and smart, but too often reduced to her unavoidable attraction to Valerian. Delevingne plays her using an accent at least better than the one she had in Paper Towns. DeHaan plays Valerian like Han Solo, but more smarmy than slick.
To knock out a few more Star Wars comparisons: the Jar Jar Binks of the movie are three anteater-snouted alien busybodies, and there's even a Slave Leia moment, although with some sort of Givenchy wedding gown swapped in for a metal bikini.
Photo: STX Entertainment
Valerian is not so much a space opera, though, as it is a futuristic police procedural and intermittent rom-com, with a plot that is not as unique or forword thinking as all the computer-generated visuals. (This is one of those movies that stop to explain the entire plot for you during the climax.) Written and directed by Luc Besson (Lucy and The Fifth Element), the storyline touches on timely topics of immigration and political power, but the movie feels more focused on the incredibly intricate details of world building than even broad strokes of the plot. It's sci-fi porn, a meh story that works well enough to get you to the good stuff.
That said, the world building is breathtaking. It's clear how long Besson spent developing this and how much blood, sweat and love he put into bringing the strange, often beautiful universe to life. And, for the most part, he doesn't feel the need to over-explain it; instead simply letting new worlds unfurl before us. One of the best is Paradise Alley, which is like Amsterdam by way of Tokyo and where Ethan Hawke plays a pimp with a nose ring and that's kind of his whole thing. One and one half hours into Valerian, this is where we finally meet Rihanna's Bubble, a shape-shifting, florescent blue alien performing in a cabaret as a sexy nurse, a disco queen and a French maid. She is onscreen for roughly six minutes total (and it's debatable how much of the acrobatic striptease is not her double), but Star Wars didn't have Rihanna at all, did it?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits theaters on July 21.