Luc Besson’s ambitious space opera, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, kicks off during the early days of space exploration. Cold War era crafts glide through earth’s orbit and begin construction on what will become Alpha, an intergalactic space station, and as the technology on earth advances, more and more national representatives arrive on the station (in a neat visual flourish, the screen’s aspect ratio widens to represent humanity’s broadening horizons). As the centuries pass, aliens also arrive on the station, each race welcomed by humanity with the same handshake offered to fellow humans. Scored to Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” these optimistic early moments paint a moving portrait of humanity’s future.
However, it’s only after the film introduces our two human heroes – Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) – that we get a real sense of what’s in store. Besson replaces visual storytelling, patient world building, and awesome Bowie music with stock characters, clunky exposition dumps, and nonstop sensory overload. These first ten-minutes exemplify the rest of the technically ambitious and wildly uneven film lying in wait.
Based on the classic French sci-fi comic book series Valérian and Laureline, Besson’s live-action version is a homage filled with quirky aliens, menacing robot soldiers, and daring escapes. When a mysterious force is discovered deep within Alpha, Agents Valerian and Laureline are called in to stop the growing threat. What follows is a swashbuckling adventure that ricochets back and forth between exhilarating and exhausting.
If you’re not already on the DeHaan bandwagon, his performance in Valerian won’t win you over. He’s serviceable in the role of a total horndog, and is believable as a competent Agent (even a hero), but lacks humor and charm. When we first meet him he’s macking hard on Sergeant Laureline – his subordinate –and Besson devotes a large chunk of running time to Laureline shutting down Valerian’s thirsty advances. Displays of male sexual bravado are a staple of the pulpy old stories Valerian is based on, but I never felt a hint of any sexual chemistry between the two. Instead of a sexually-charged Sam and Diane-style back and forth, Valerian’s advances come off like the obnoxious bro at the bar who can’t take a hint. My only interest in him is as a window into this film’s surreal universe. I would be fine returning to the world of Valerian without Agent Valerian, who lacks the wit, sex appeal, and swagger to go down in the dashing-hero pantheon along side Han Solo, Captain Kirk, and Star Lord.
If you told me that one character from the film would catch on in pop culture, however, I would have to bet that it’s Laureline. I can picture Sergeant Laureline cosplayers showing up at cons. She’s a badass, cool under pressure, and she knows exactly how to keep Valerian’s horny-ass in check (the guy really is a hound). She’s not just cool – she’s practically a Terminator. However, that stern façade is also a barrier that keeps us from connecting with the character. You would feel safe if Laureline had your back in a street fight, but you wouldn’t invite her to any dinner parties. She’s not in the film to play the damsel in distress, at least. While Valerian does rescue her, she swoops in to save him on more than one occasion, laser-focused on the missions and more competent than Valerian in more than a few ways. The duo’s skills complement each other, and they make a formidable team even as the actor’s onscreen chemistry falters.
When it comes to visuals, Valerian is on another level from its competition. The world-building and attention to detail leave other epics in the dust. There wasn’t a single moment of screen time where I wasn’t impressed by the creative team’s ambition; you could remove half of the digital effects, locations, and alien life-forms and Valerian would still be a visual smorgasbord. It’s as if someone took 50-years of Doctor Who mythology and packed it into a 2-hour film.
Even more impressive is how Besson’s creative team avoids cookie-cutter alien designs. Valerian‘s creatures aren’t simply humanoids with green skin, pointy ears, or ridges on their head; these life forms come in unconventional shapes and sizes, each one more impressive than the last (I’m 90% sure one alien looked like a birthday cake). The ETs are a mix of CGI and practical effects, and at times it’s hard to tell the two apart. We spend the most time with Na’vi-like alien race called the Pearls, lithe humanoid CGI creatures that are unnatural enough to evoke the uncanny valley, and yet there is such a hypnotic beauty to their shimmering skin, soft voices, and graceful movements that I often found myself transfixed.
I’m not sure if Valerian can appeal to moviegoers that aren’t fans of sci-fi. For many, hard-core sci-fi may as well be a foreign language; not everyone knows how to drift along with the ebbs and flows of the genre’s clichés, tropes, and wacky plot beats, and the shaky story elements on display here aren’t strong enough to win any new fans either. It could take a note from cinema’s ultimate sci-fi opus, Star Wars, where despite the massive scale and intricate world-building, the movie starts off fairly low-key. We spend a considerable amount of time with a wanderlusting farm boy on the dusty planet of Tatooine before Lucas peels back the layers and reveals the larger universe. Unlike Star Wars, Valerian hits the ground running and blazes ahead full tilt, and it doesn’t take long to understand the story’s stakes. The problem is the that the audience barely has reason to care about the two protagonists and the world they’re trying to save.
In a nutshell, Valerian’s characters are bland, the central romance lacks chemistry, and the plot is convoluted. Yet, I enjoyed watching every minute. It’s beautiful, messy, weird, captivating, trippy, brave, puzzling, and unlike anything else you’ll catch in a theatre anytime soon. I could go on about the red-light district where Wyclef’s ode to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” blasts over the crowded streets. I could go on about spotting a Jessica Rabbit impersonator, or how Rihanna plays alien named… Bubble. Bubble!!! I could carry on about how the cinematography makes the film worth the extra cost of an IMAX screen or a 3-D ticket. Valerian is so wild, so zany, and off-the-wall bonkers that it worked for me as purely visceral experience. The human heroes may receive top billing, but it’s the world of Valerian that steals the show.
Our coverage will be continuing all throughout July, so be sure to get your genre kicks with even more Fantasia 2017 features and reviews right here!