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In 1997, director Luc Besson gave us THE FIFTH ELEMENT, a dazzling Sci-Fi epic heavily influenced by European comic books. Since then, fans have wondered when if ever he’d make a return to the genre, especially since some of his more recent efforts failed to impress. LUCY was a surprise hit, but right before that THE FAMILY was a critical and box office dud. Some felt the best thing Besson could do would be to make another Science Fiction film. This weekend we’ll see how that plays out with VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS.

The movie opens with a montage showing us Earth’s International space station evolving over the years and taking in newcomers, beginning with other humans and eventually taking in exotic aliens, forming a sort of giant hive city over time called “Alpha” filled with various races – a city of a thousand planets. The effort gets so big that Alpha is eventually pushed out into deep space. We then see a beautiful planet inhabited by tall slender aliens, and in mere minutes see their culture and lifestyle played out with emotions and magical exchanges. And just when we’re nearly overcome with the breathtaking qualities of this new world, a space battle enters their atmosphere with ferocious destruction. It’s one of the few times I can think of where a movie effectively introduced a new planet and alien species, made you engrossed in their existence, and then tore it all apart in a way that emotionally resonates in a genuine fashion. I liken the visuals of this scene in particular to what felt like a Heavy Metal magazine story brought to life with sleek CGI. Then we meet Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two intergalactic agents that seem to flirt more than they work. Valerian hopes to win Laureline’s heart, but she knows him to be a habitual ladies man with many conquests under his belt. An attack takes place on the Ministry of Defense, and Commander Arun (Clive Owen) is taken by those behind it. Valerian and Laureline must just into action and rescue their superior officer, and perhaps find love along the way.

Luc Besson’s previous Science Fiction effort, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, became a fan-favorite and is still held in high regard among the right crowds. VALERIAN is his return to Sci-Fi, but rings important in that the now classic source material (it’s based on a series of French comic books) served as the basis for countless beloved movies within the genre, including STAR WARS. Besson has gone out of his way to capture the visuals of those books within his new film, and it’s quite a wonder to behold. The visual effects are so good in some scenes, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported into a believable fantasy world. And the story is infinitely more layered than THE FIFTH ELEMENT was, though sometimes those layers overlap in a messy way. The first half of the movie is pure Sci-Fi grandeur that works more often than it doesn’t, but the second half seems to tumble under its own weight, throwing us into scene after scene of imaginative scenarios that sometimes come across like more filler than story. One thing Besson gets right is a sense of fun and adventure. These characters never seem to take themselves too seriously, which allows the audience to just enjoy the ride. Dane DeHaan feels a little miscast as Valerian, and looks just a tad young and ordinary for this role – not a slight against him as an actor, he’s quite good in most roles he takes on, but here he seems out his element a bit. The comic version of the character was more of a James Bond-esque visage, and DeHaan just isn’t convincing as that type of hero. Delevingne fares a bit better as Laureline, although it’s a bit obvious she’s more of a model-turned-actress, and he facial expressions are perhaps the best part of her performance. Both actors come across like odd choices, but a production like this is relying more on the visuals and Sci-Fi elements to sell tickets anyway. One of the big surprises is Rihanna, who shows up halfway through the story as a shape-shifting exotic dancer who ends up assisting Valerian. While she doesn’t get just a whole lot of screen time, she’s easily one of the highlights of the film, and a fun character that probably could have been used more.

VALERIAN isn’t a bad movie, and Sci-Fi fans will likely be quite entertained, but as the much-hyped return of Luc Besson to the genre it’s just a little underwhelming in the end. I’m sure a project like this isn’t easy to make work on every level, and there are certainly some impressive moments that will wow audiences, but the somewhat messy script suffers from a sloppy second half. It’s doubtful the movie will spawn any sequels, especially considering the giant budget behind it, but as a one-off exercise in Science Fiction it’s still a valiant effort, and visually it’s one of the most impressive films of the year. If you’re a fan of European comics, particularly from the 70s and 80s, you’ll likely be impressed enough with the presentation to forgive the shortcomings… but if you’re an average moviegoer, chances are you’ll be mildly amused and enjoy the eye candy, while not feeling much beyond that. At the very least, Besson should be commended for taking on such a challenging production, especially knowing how risky these types of movies are in the age where sequels and reboots are all most folks seem to care about anymore.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS will be in theaters on July 21, 2017!

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.