Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Bumbray)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: In the 28th century, intergalactic spacel agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) uncover a plot underway at Alpha, an ever expanding metropolis consisting over a thousand separate mini-planets and dimensions.

REVIEW: Comparing VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS to director Luc Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT is pretty neat. While the latter, his 1997 Bruce Willis epic, pushed the boundaries of VFX and CGI at its time, it looks incredibly modest next to VALERIAN, Besson’s mega-budget adaptation of the popular French comic book. Giving AVATAR a run for its money as far as immersive 3D worlds go, VALERIAN is an utterly sumptuous visual feast, albeit one that’s tainted by a few odd choices made along the way.

The most glaring of these is the most important – Dane DeHaan is badly miscast in the title role. This is not a dig at the guy – DeHaan is a good actor and has been terrific in several films, including CHRONICLE, KILL YOUR DARLINGS and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. However, he has a very specific vibe – which is dark and brooding. In VALERIAN, he tries to go light and cheerful, but he doesn’t have the range or presence to pull it off, even though he tries mightily. It’s as if this role was written for someone like The Rock, but the modestly built DeHaan was cast instead.

Throughout the film, everyone’s commenting on how amazing Valerian is, and how women find him irresistible, and so on. Whenever an action scene hits, Alexandre Desplat’s score works overtime to make you think, “ohhh, Valerian’s about to kick some ass!” But DeHaan just doesn’t have that edge – he’s not the he-man superhero type. Virtually any leading man would have been better in the part, from Armie Hammer, to Oscar Isaac, to perhaps Michael B. Jordan. But Dane DeHaan? It’s just oddball casting against type, and it doesn’t work. Imagine THE FIFTH ELEMENT remade with DeHaan playing Bruce Willis’s part – that’s basically what this is.

It’s too bad though, because everything else about VALERIAN is quite wonderful. Co-star Cara Delevingne really comes into her own as Valerian’s partner, Laureline, who’s too busy trying to save the galaxy to fall under Valerian’s romantic spell – although he tries. She’s striking in the elaborate costumes by Olivier Bériot, and has a unique presence. It’s telling that VALERIAN works best during an interlude where the two are split up and Laureline has to work on her own.

Clive Owen, who’s been absent from big movies for too long, plays the nominal baddie, although any real villainous presence is downplayed. VALERIAN is more concerned with exploring the titular thousand planets and the production design and CGI puts even the last few STAR WARS movies to shame. Besson’s imagination is really working in overdrive, with some incredible bits, including a great title sequence set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and a show-stopping appearance by Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien.

VALERIAN is also one of the few movies really worth watching in 3D – having been shot that way to make the most of its immersive aspects. With the bright, eye-popping colors, this is a movie that really benefits from being seen that way – and that’s coming from someone who despises the technology. The movie is so wildly entertaining that you can even overlook the clunky dialogue and the anti-climactic finish – although DeHaan’s performance is the one thing that can’t be brushed off. Again, he’s not bad in the part. He gives it his all – he’s just not right in it. It’s like eating a great pasta dish, only to discover the chef has sprinkled chocolate chips into it. Chocolate chips are great on their own and with many other things, but not in pasta. That’s what DeHaan is like here – and it keeps VALERIAN from classic status.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.