You could watch Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets on mute and still get just as much out of it as watching with audio. That’s meant as both a compliment and an insult, because Valerian is a true fever dream of a movie: chaotic and nonsensical but a true, majestic wonder for the eyes. The plot is as flimsy as cardboard, but the visuals painted on that cardboard make Valerian a sturdy enough movie going experience to be enjoyable.
“What is actually going on in Valerian then?” you ask. Well that’s hard to say! See, Valerian starts off incredibly strong, with its opening sequence quickly establishing backstory in a breathtaking, inspirational manner. It could honestly be its own Oscar-worthy short film if they found a better ending for it. But essentially, there was a space station near earth that kept growing and growing as humans began visiting it during our growing space exploration. Other aliens visited it too, and over the course of centuries, this space station became a full-fledged city called Alpha, a New York or Tokyo floating in space, with members of thousands of species living on it. Turns out someone or something wants to harm the city, and there’s also a mystical species we meet at the beginning of the film that might have something to do with it.
“But who or what is Valerian?” you wonder. “It sounds like the name of a mystical planet that’s central to the story of this illustrious, compelling sci-fi world!” But sadly it’s not, it’s just the name of the supposedly central character of the movie. I say supposedly because hard to tell though if the character Valerian is really the guy leading the charge in the movie Valerian since Dane DeHaan is so uncharismatic as government agent/cop guy Valerian, mumbling nearly half his lines and walking around like a lifeless zombie that we forget he’s in the movie anytime he’s not on screen. Cara Delevingne, though, commands our attention as Valerian’s partner. She’s a bit better and actually brings energy to the film. But both of them are just poorly written, interchangeable “rebel with a cause” types who we know little about and really don’t care to learn anymore. Delevingne does the best with her material, while DeHaan was simply miscast.
But none of that matters, because Valerian is awesome to watch. It’s the big screen equivalent of watching a soothing, old Windows 98 screensaver, a visual experience that’s so pulsating and energy-packed it feels like the CGI animators accidentally spilled Mountain Dew or Red Bull onto their keyboards while animating and that soda found its way into the movie. Valerian is directed by Luc Besson and very much has a kinetic The Fifth Element vibe to it, but doesn’t feel so much a movie as a collection of storyboards and concept art hanging on Besson’s wall that was haphazardly edited together into this. The film jumps between so many different concepts and species that it can’t decide if it wants to tell the story of Valerian or write the encyclopedia of all the things in Valerian. It doesn’t matter though, because we could give two shits about Valerian’s story or world.
But I have to admit, this is one of the rare scenarios for me where even though I can’t stand the story being told in the movie, I enjoyed the experience of watching and looking at it enough to justify my time and money. I’m usually one to argue that a bad movie can’t excuse itself because it is “fun,” as there are plenty of fun, action-packed, visually-stunning movies that are great films even though they lack in the smarts department (The Fast and the Furious series is a great example). Good storytelling and stunning visuals are not mutually exclusive, nor is there a law of movie physics that states a stupid movie cannot be a good movie, nor a bad movie is automatically a stupid movie.
Valerian occupies that weird space where it is noticeably bad, incomprehensibly stupid but immensely enjoyable. The movie as coherent as going to an art museum and having a five-year-old imagine a story of how the paintings are all connected together. Yeah, the five-year-old’s story will just be a rambling, incomprehensible mess, but just like Valerian, at least you get to look at some cool paintings in the meantime to make the tale worthwhile.