Director of the Fifth Element, Luc Besson, returns to Science Fiction with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Based on the french comics Valerian and Laureline, this is a visual science fiction feast. An early sequence indulges in a beautiful ocean planet that seems to be just ocean and beaches. The alien species are tall slender humanoids of grace and beauty. But it is disrupted by falling ships, which incinerate the planet. We are then introduced to Major Valarian and Sergeant Laureline, who seem to be enjoying a pleasant day at the beach. This is revealed to be a hologram, and they are actually on their way to a special covert mission. And so begins the continuous roller coaster of a story.
Valerian is a playboy special agent, a space James Bond if you will. He is trying to pursue romance with Laureline, who repeatedly shoots down his attempts…mainly on the grounds of his apparent commitment issues. As they go from adventure to adventure, taking risk upon risk, they eventually find themselves uncovering a deep governmental cover-up.
The action scenes are many and exciting. The film is vibrant and colorful, filled with exotic creatures and life forms. Besson indulges fanciful aliens and hungry beasts. But at the core, what matters to this story is love. Love plays a huge part of the resolution. Not just romantic love, but a larger love based in trust and faith.
And yet? The film is a bit of a disappointment. The story comes second to the amazing visuals, the barest of plots to justify the beauty of a distant future filled with wonder and threat.
While the film desires to feel like it is about something exciting and big, the characters are light and barely caricatures. Valerian is the rakish rogue with a good heart. Laureline the smart and capable better half. This leads to characters filling in by the numbers stereotypes. The Commander seeking to hide a dark secret. The unknowing Defense Minister who must help uncover the secret, unaware of the danger this puts him in. And so on and so on. There are no surprises to the story.
Valarian and the City of a Thousand Planets is satisfying only in it’s visual aesthetic, not it’s story.