Like most people, I didn’t bother watching Director Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets when it hit the movie theaters. The critics panned the movie badly, so I waited until the video release to watch it. Based on the comic book series of the same name, much of the movie Valerian reminded me more of Besson’s The Fifth Element.

Lots of parallels.

If there’s a Sixth Element, it’s a dimension that involves virtual reality, psychedelic pearls, and lots more lasers and aliens.

The movie features plenty of action and plenty of neon. All in all, I agree with most critics that the film’s main attraction is its sumptuous visuals. In nearly every scene, we are treated to a scenic masterpiece: cities in space, dreamy planets, and more alien creations than you could fit in a Star Wars bar scene.

VR provides another dimension.

Anyone who likes ultraviolet jellyfish and that tingly, zappy lightning stuff won’t be disappointed. It’s like going into the future with a virtual reality headset. One shot of the Alpha station evokes a Ghibli composition and from there it goes to Las Vegas Venetian skies, but once we reach the main destination, the dominant visual tone is Battlestar Galactica-themed laser tag.

You can see most of it in this trailer:

Life on the pearl planet.

The visuals are impressive (probably even more so in 3D), yet the overall effect of the movie remains hokey on some level. It maintains that artificial deference that some directors seem to use when they’re working from comic books. The characters suffer the most from this disconnect. I wouldn’t call the acting terrible, but it’s plain and unremarkable. Dane DeHaan is cold and one dimensional. Perhaps Cara Delavingne can act, but Director Luc Besson does not put her in a position to succeed. She has no chance to create a strong female role like Natalie Portman or Milla Jovovich did more memorably in previous Besson films.

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Are you getting the idea? They have these same fixed facial expressions for the entire movie.

The two leads here aren’t likeable. They barely look old enough to drive a spaceship, but of course the fate of the universe is in their hands. Besides appearing more like brother and sister than two people who might have a romantic interest in one another, they have zero chemistry and we don’t see the first smile until about the 45th minute (if there was an earlier one, I missed it).

Most of the time, they are grimmer than Herbie Hancock, who is instantly recognizable in his signature glasses. I guess they couldn’t get him to wear a duct tape bikini or a lizard mask dripping with slime. Perhaps the serious mood is in keeping with the comic book franchise, but despite the playful and imaginative scenery on the journey they take, the main actor and actress do not look like they’re having fun. Their quest is businesslike and their dialogue seems forced.

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Herbie Hancock must have included the glasses in his contract.

The film’s storyline is the blank slate that director Luc Besson needed to take the next imaginative step beyond his 1997 movie The Fifth Element.There are some parallels in this dream. There’s the pervasive evil disturbance that the main characters set out to discover and eliminate, requiring a trip to another world. There’s the missing link that makes it all right in the end. There are the larger than life characters, both alien and human, who appear at every juncture and form the living landscape of the journey.

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By “larger than life”, I mean these figures are role players in the exaggerated comic book style, often more of a visual distraction than key parts of a fast-moving storyline. The pace slows down noticeably only to bring in Rihanna as a shapeshifting stripper. She ends up being a bright point, but leaves us too soon as noise envelopes the story once more.

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Rihanna’s cameo is actually a high point, not just for the striptease, but because her character provides a bit of warmth in the film.

I almost missed Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod character from The Fifth Element. As in that movie, there is a scene at the departure point before reaching the next-stage destination (Fhloston Paradise in The Fifth Element and Alpha in Valerian). And instead of Ruby Rod, we are given a tour guide with a gigantic turban and a hippy bus. But he doesn’t last as long as the stripper.

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Ruby Rhod from the Fifth Element.

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The turban tour guide in Valerian.

The last 40 minutes of the movie are a slight improvement. It’s almost as if someone flips a switch, since the plot and the actors loosen up noticeably. Until then, I wasn’t optimistic that the story would resolve itself in any way other than its one dimensional trajectory would suggest. For a short time, it becomes unglued from that page. The actors show a hint of passion and some smiles. It finally appears as if they had rehearsed a scene together.

In the end, I don’t like having to watch a movie only because someone tells me it is a “must see” visual treat. The sideshow figures and critters are memorable again here, and the action is omnipresent, but please give me a movie along with them, even if it is from a comic book. Besides those highlights, there isn’t a good reason to watch Valerian. It reminded me of a SyFy channel movie on a bigger budget.

If you enjoy imaginative visuals and Besson’s sideshow characters with a dose of action, you might enjoy Valerian. But if you need a movie with characters and a plot, then feel free to skip this one. It’s missing some elements.

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All images of the movie are from Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets from EuropaCorp and STXfilms. Images of Bruce Willis/Milla Jovovich and Chris Tucker are from The Fifth Element from Columbia Pictures. The last image is a widely circulated meme originating with Lord of the Rings by New Line Cinema.

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