It’s rare that a modern scifi movie shows you something you’ve truly never seen before, but that happens a lot in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s innovative action, wondrous landscapes, creepy aliens, awesome weapons and technology, all of which combine to create a massive, magnificent universe. Unfortunately, all the focus on the setting causes Valerian’s story to suffer.
Besson is so transfixed by the world he’s created that he’s often much more interested in showing it to you than telling an interesting story. So while many moments of Valerian are masterful—there’s a chase scene in a market that will blow your mind—once the film finishes its brisk first act, Besson pumps the brakes considerably and the lack of a strong plotline begins to show. What started as a intergalactic joyride quickly becomes a bunch of people standing around and talking, peppered in with visually impressive, but ultimately empty, tangents.
These tangents fill the second half of the film, mostly revolving around special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), essentially playing a pair of intergalactic mercenaries. Their will they/won’t they relationship and sexual tension almost works against the movie, as their awkwardness borders on the uncomfortable. Eventually, their chemistry begins to work within the film’s universe. But no matter how much the film explores them, Valerian and Laureline almost always seem more like set dressing rather than a reason for watching the movie.
They end up feeling like tour guides to the universe of the film, especially once Besson shoves the main story in the back seat to accomodate those weird, aforementioned tangents, many of which feature Valerian and Laureline being separated and reunited over and over again. The main plot is so abandoned it almost feels pointless. You basically stop caring about the plot you were following because it gets shoved to the side in favor of these weird side stories.
To be fair, while these side stories are weird—one includes a memorable turn from singer Rihanna—they’re still interesting. Besson knows he has a lot of cool things to show audiences, and he wants to show them all. But each strand feels like a cool episode of a show rather than a cohesive part of a movie. And by the time the main plot stuff comes back to the forefront, so much time has passed that the film is forced to explain everything in a huge exposition dump with a bunch of characters standing around in a single room. After a movie whose best parts are exploring this alien-filled, wild universe, the seemingly static ending feels almost insignificant. It misses the majesty the film is certainly capable of.
And yet, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets still works, albeit in its own offbeat way. The visuals, especially in 3D, are some of the best you’ll see this summer. Besson’s penchant for incredible action is there at all times. As a showcase for a new scifi universe, there’s rarely been better. It’s just the most important stuff—character, emotion, plot—is overshadowed by that universe. That’s what keeps Valerian from being great... but damned if it isn’t a fun watch.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens July 21.