The UnPopular Opinion: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!


Every year, there is a movie that opens and doesn't give a fuck what critics think. Back in 1997, that film was Luc Besson's THE FIFTH ELEMENT. After a slew of mysterious teasers, the world finally got to see Bruce WIllis and the stunningly sexy Milla Jovovich in a batshit crazy, candy-colored vision of the future that was at once haute couture and grimy nihilism. But, the film was wrapped in the spectacle of big budget movie entertainment and that allowed viewers to overlook some of the bigger problems with the film's flimsy plot structure and cheesy acting. THE FIFTH ELEMENT is a damn fun popcorn flick that deserved a sequel. Twenty years later, we got the spiritual successor to THE FIFTH ELEMENT in Luc Besson's passion project, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. While the results may still be a narrative mixed bag, the movie is still just as much fun as THE FIFTH ELEMENT and features dramatically improved special effects. In fact, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS may be the most fun at the movies I had in 2017.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS was a favorite of Besson's as a child and became his lifelong passion project. Adapting ideas from the comic book source material to create THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Besson finally found the independent funding to make his dream a reality. State of the art special effects were also vital to bring the world Besson envisioned to life and the jump in quality of the effects is easily visible when comparing 1997's THE FIFTH ELEMENT to 2017's VALERIAN. And yet, critics and audiences were turned off by the film as evidenced by the $225 million worldwide gross. With estimates putting the film's budget close to $200 million (a record for a non-Hollywood film as well as any independent production), VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS was a colossal failure. Critics were mixed overall but leaned more on the shortcomings of the movie in regards to the thin plot and the odd choice of casting Dane DeHaan as the lead.

The UnPopular Opinion, Drama, Science Fiction, Luc Besson, Cara Delevigne, Dane DeHaan, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Rihanna, Clive Owen

First, let's address Dane DeHaan. Since his critically acclaimed performance on HBO's In Treatment and his buzzed role in CHRONICLE, DeHaan has steadily appeared in multiple films ranging from indie flicks to big budget spectacles like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and THE CURE FOR WELLNESS. DeHaan has often been called the poor man's Leonardo DiCaprio due to his physical resemblance to the Oscar winning actor, but he is much more than that. Often, lead roles in movies like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS are given to actors like Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson. Casting against type, DeHaan brings an everyman quality to the title character who is equal parts Han Solo and Korben Dallas. He may not embody the personality or even physicality many would have expected in this movie, but he executes well and is far more appealing of a character than in any of his other recent movies. Not every comic adaptation has to star a behemoth of an actor. At the same time, I have been very cold on Cara Delevigne but found her to be incredibly sexy and watchable as Laureline. DeHaan and Delevigne have a natural chemistry on screen here that helps carry VALERIAN over the finish line.

As for the thinness of the plot, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is like bacon: it ultimately doesn't matter what the ingredients are in the recipe because if it has bacon, the dish is a vehicle for the bacon. In plain English, the depth of the plot is irrelevant is it serves as a vehicle for the visual madness Luc Besson has had pent up inside him for decades. Much of what you see portrayed on screen in Valerian, specifically the over the top opening action sequence is garish, goofy, and completely nonsensical in the best ways possible. Luc Besson went for broke in creating the sumptious visuals of VALERIAN in an effort to entertain. Besson has never been a filmmaker worried about impressing critics as much as he has wanted to entertain fans. As someone not familiar with the comic book that inspired VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, I felt compelled to check it out after seeing the movie. The results are incredibly faithful to the art of Jean-Claude Mézières.

VALERIAN is also a mess. There are so many things that it tries to do that fall flat that I can understand why many were hesitant to give it a chance. But, like JOHN CARTER before it, the legacy of VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is so vital to the science fiction and fantasy genres that it must be experienced. Like JOHN CARTER, many moments in VALERIAN feel cliche as they have been done countless times before in movies like STAR WARS even though George Lucas was inspired by the same books as Besson was. This is also a film that demand a level of suspension of disbelief to allow yourself to go along for the ride and not spend two hours nitpicking which films did certain scenes better than this movie. VALERIAN is pure popcorn entertainment that allows you to sit back and open your eyes wide o your brain can consume the craziness on display.

The energy of VALERIAN is palpable and comes across even in the smaller roles from Rihanna and Clive Owen. There are no moments in the movie that slow down to waste time on narrative nonsense as the film catapults the audience from one set piece to another. VALERIAN is made both to top THE FIFTH ELEMENT as well as to continue the thematic trail started with that movie. Like that movie, VALERIAN sets up a vast world to explore and I hope that we get to see future adventures in the City of a Thousand Planets, even if they feature different lead roles. What I would love to stay consistent is the vibrant direction from Besson and the stellar score by Alexandre Desplat. Desplat is best known for his more contemplative musical scores, but he holds his own here along the greats like Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Michael Giacchino. Everything about VALERIAN exudes fun even if it is mindless fun.

The UnPopular Opinion, Drama, Science Fiction, Luc Besson, Cara Delevigne, Dane DeHaan, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Rihanna, Clive Owen

What is most disenheartening about VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is that the lackluster financial side of the movie making experience may doom us from seeing more adventures featuring DeHaan and Delevigne. Luc Besson seems confident that the dedicated core fans will be enough to warrant a sequel to this movie and I hope he is right. Pure space opera fun has been monopolized by Disney and the STAR WARS machine. As much as I love those movies, there is always room for more diverse and different looks at galaxies both far away and close by. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is a beautifully executed introduction to a fictional universe that should have been a massive box office hit. Even in the absence of thos accolades, there is a foundation built here that Besson and other daring filmmakers can explore. Who knows, maybe someday we will see VALERIAN and THE FIFTH ELEMENT cross over. Even if that never happens, I am confident that twenty years from now, VALERIAN will be looked back upon with a dedicated fanbase who love it as much as Besson's previous trip into outer space.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected], spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!


About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.