A visually stunning return to the space-opera for director Luc Besson, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets makes up for narrative, dialogue, and pacing issues with absolutely phenomenal visuals and kinetic sci-fi action.

Based loosely on the long-running French comic book Valerian and Laureline, Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) a duo of special operatives working for the human government on Alpha (the titular City of a Thousand Planets). The city, the natural expansion of the International Space Station (after hundreds of years and first contacts, of course), is a bastion of interspecies cooperation and knowledge sharing – each species added onto the enormous station a place of their own.

When Valerian and Laureline are tasked with finding and retrieving the last remaining Mul Converter (a little creature capable of recreating mass quantities of whatever it eats) from the hands of ne’er-do-wells. But this mission, it turns out, is much more complicated than it originally seems, forcing Valerian and Laureline to face down a wide variety of challenges (and their own sexual tension) in order to save Alpha and its millions of citizens.

Where Valerian shines is in the sheer visual spectacle of its world-building. Alpha is a hodgepodge of architectural styles as varied as its human and non-human denizens – ranging from people in funny hats (one of Besson’s specialties) to shapeshifting creatures that look like Rihanna, from tiny-headed orc creatures to cyborgs that look like a cross between the Geth and Cylons.

The action in the film is well thought out, and a expertly crafted – with characters leaping through walls and firing ridiculously creative weapons as they fall through alien biome after alien biome.

Creativity and action is Valerian’s strong suit to be sure. Where it begins to fail, however, is when the heroes begin to talk and stories must be told.

While Delevigne and DeHaan have some great chemistry, their quipy banter never settles into something that people would actual say in conversation – it’s all one-liners and dramatic prose. Additionally, there are some huge leaps the story asks the audience to take with the plot and especially with character development. Things just always end up resolving in a deus ex machina fashion rather than a logical cause-to-effect manner. The effect here, overall, is that we never quite gain any real attachment to our heroes as they are never in any real danger and are given only a rudimentary backstory or motivation.

At one point, Valerian insists that he cannot do something because he a soldier and he has to follow the rules, it’s “what makes [him] what he [is]” – despite spending half of the movie doing the exact opposite of that by going off on his own, defying authority figures, and being generally impulsive and chaotic. The same goes for Laureline who, throughout most of the film is very cold and “down to business,” yet claims that “love” is the most important thing ever.

None of the characters are ever allowed to grow or mature, in any sort of logical way, because we never get a solid hold on whom they were to begin with.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a fun, science fiction romp through some of the best special effects and character design in recent memory. But with some severe pacing issues, iffy dialogue, and runtime of almost two and a half hours – the experience is uneven at best.

3 and a half out of 5 stars

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson,Pierre Christin Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Elizabeth Debicki, Ethan Hawke, John Goodman, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer,
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Runtime: 2h 17min
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