The movie of a thousand plot threads..
Luc Besson has a well deserved reputation as a competent director with a knack for memorable characters, unique shots and making films that can at least be described as “good”. Leon the professional and Le Femme Nikita are both excellent action films as well as deep character studies. The Fifth Element is, despite it's flaws, a beautifully shot film on unique and well made sets. Unfortunately, Valerian and the city of a thousand planets is not any of those things. It is a confusing, loosely connected mess of a movie.
Based of the long running French comic series Valérian and Laureline, which ran from November 1967 to January 2010, Valerian attempts to follow Valerian and Laureline as they investigate a mysterious zone deep within Alpha, the titular City of a thousand planets. What follows, is a long winded tale of political corruption, where the villain is revealed within a few minutes of him appearing on screen, at which point he vanishes for most of the film and all but ceases to be relevant. The plot is in shambles, with dozens of subplots appearing and disappearing from start to finish.
The film is more focused on showing you all of the “things” that exist within it's world. And that is what so much of the movie is, just things being thrown at the screen to try and impress the audience. And, to the film's credit, some of the art is excellent. Unfortunately, most of it already appeared in The Fifth Element and looked much more convincing. The special effects are sometimes extremely good and blend in well with the plentiful practical effects, other times throughly jarring and poorly made. But before you can process half of what you've seen, another dozen things have been thrown at you that are just as difficult to understand.
The film's characters are very inconsistent in performance and personality. Valerian and Laureline, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne respectively, start with good chemistry. They chastise each other and banter in a way that is both believable and likeable. And then it suddenly stops, and they both become as dry and boring as everyone else in the film. Eventually, all characters just become sources of exposition that occasionally shoot at each other. Some have more to them, but they will inevitably be around for only a few minutes before either dying or vanishing into the background, never to speak again.
The world-building is almost as disorganised as the backgrounds. What needs to be explained isn't explained enough and what doesn't need to be explained is over-explained. For instance, most of the first act is spent in a market that somehow exists across multiple dimensions. The exact mechanics and rules of how this is possible are somehow both unexplained and yet also just explained enough to be extremely confusing and inconsistent. A significant portion of the screen-time is dedicated to expositing things that aren't needed or are better left to the imagination. It crosses the line from making a more intricate and detailed world to just being unnecessary and obnoxious.
Luc Besson has had a long career, spanning nearly four decades, during which he has made some incredible films across multiple genres. But it seems that he has begun to lose his edge. Valerian reads like a Director attempting to keep going beyond their peak and just descending further and further into mediocrity. Hopefully Besson will be able to go back to making smaller, more concentrated films. Give him time, a smaller budget, prop guns and Jean Reno and he will make something better. Valerian has already bombed, hopefully Besson's career won't as well.