by Michael Henley
Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a gorgeously-realized and gorgeously-goofy ode to preposterous overcooked sci-fi nonsense.
I use the word “nonsense” here with affection, not scorn, because this is a movie I find impossible to scorn, despite its many many flaws that are perfectly worthy of it. This is a movie that mixes flirty intergalactic secret agents, a huge space station that houses hundreds of alien species within individual biomes, action sequences that literally transcend space and time, a far-reaching galactic conspiracy, drugged-out space pimps, robot soliders, desperate alien refugees, a creature that reproduces any mineral it consumes by popping hundreds of it outs of its skin, bizarre alien soirées, and a scene where our plucky heroine must stick her head into the anus of an alien jellyfish in order to telepathically commune with it to track down her missing partner. She has exactly 60 seconds before the thing starts eating her brain, but she survives the ordeal with head intact while pushing upwards of 80. What a gal.
Already I’m either describing something you definitely have no interest in, or something that has piqued some weird crevice of your curiosity. It’s based on a 1960s French comic book, about a couple of space-age spies named Valerian and Laureline, who find themselves in a series of persistently bewildering adventures. The original comics, it’s been said, inspired the look of Star Wars and countless other sci-fi movies, and one of its designers, Jean-Claude Mézières, worked on Besson’s The Fifth Element, which Valerian–be warned–resembles, right down to its goofy humor, cracked-out world-building and skeletal plot. This is not the Besson who made Leon–The Professional. This is the Besson we sometimes get who wants to cherish his inner 13-year-old, and wants to see crazy costumes and eye-popping sights. He wants to open the toybox and play, play, play. God bless him.
There’s a story in here, involving aliens seeking reparations for a cataclysm in the past, and a cover up involving officials at the titular space station. The plot does its job; it checks the boxes. But who cares, really. It serves mainly as a clothesline to hang remarkable sights. Is that a crime? Not when the sights are this remarkable, I think.
I know it’s my job to be honest here. Like, it’s really important to note that Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan, in a thoroughly terrible performance that plays like an improv game where moments before filming he was given a note that read “play it like 1993-era Keanu Reeves.” I should also mention that he has zero chemistry with Laureline (Cara Delevigne), his partner and the object of his constantly-stymied affections. Worth pointing out: In their perplexing military hierarchy, he’s definitely a general and she’s labeled a sergeant, so he’s basically sexually harassing her at every moment. So the sexual politics are a little retrograde, especially on the occasions when Laureline is captured and has to be rescued. That happens once, which in an episodic fable like this, is a small number. But it could have been zero, and it isn’t.
There. I mentioned those things that are bad. Consider them mentioned. Now come with me to the space station Alpha, which is basically built out of cannibalized modules and spare parts that just grew and grew. In a clever opening title sequence, we see the progression of the place as an expanding cosmopolis, as a time-lapse series of welcoming handshakes go from Russian to American to Chinese to tentacles and goop. Alpha’s command posts might be a dull series of brightly-lit boxy corridors and airlocks, but when the plot demands the characters go deeper, it reveals itself as practically an inside-out planet, hosting a Times Square-like mecca, and habitats for alien creatures that range from psychedelic to technological to primordial to an entire ocean, replete with sea predators. And then there are the alien palaces and nightclubs that dot the landscape, run by people like Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke…yes, Ethan Hawke), who peddles the services of a shape-shifting prostitute named Bubble (Rihanna…yes, Rihanna). Did I mention the space station is run by jazz legend Herbie Hancock? (Yes, Herbie Han–stop that!)
This is a movie that isn’t happy unless it’s throwing 30 things at you all at once. Your two options are to be constantly exhilarated or eventually exhausted. Consider the opening sequence, a practically-silent alien pastoral that tutors us, quite succinctly, on their singular culture and society before a disaster strikes. Or consider what follows, where Valerian and Laureline must perform a special op by heisting an object from a marketplace in another dimension, one that can only be seen with goggles and with the aid of a special box that can act as a bridge between worlds (Valerian gets his pistol jammed in the box at one point, causing a delightful moment when he has to ward off thugs who are attacking him on two planes of existence at the same time. This sequence is ambitious and delightful and just plain gloriously odd as anything I’ve seen in a movie in years. Imagine a movie where every moment tries to top the daffy, otherworldly spirit of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars and that’s basically Valerian (wait until you meet the waddling furry aliens who look like ALF and finish each other’s sentences).
Is it good? Kinda? Maybe? It’s good to people who like this sort of stuff and who can forgive flaws. I mentioned DeHaan already, who is just lost in this material, god bless him, but that doesn’t end up being a dealbreaker, because Valerian intentionally comes across as someone who is gung-ho but not too bright. Laureline is the brains of the operation, clearly, and Delevigne does a surprisingly decent job at channeling the puckish strength of her character (she won me over early on in a moment when she introduces herself to a squad of aliens through a rapid-fire ritualistic arm gesture and then breezily introduces her partner as an afterthought). It’s just a shame that she’s put into danger and needing of rescue a little too often for such a supposedly-clever secret agent, although one moment, when she’s kidnapped by a race of trollish brutes, allows the entrance of the aforementioned Bubble, who Rhianna bestows with a little depth and not a little broad humor. Let’s see…crazy visuals, goofy comedy, bizarre characters, ramshackle plot, mile-a-minute cracked-out pacing…did I mention that Ethan Hawke plays a whacked-out guy named Jolly the Pimp? Okay, just checking.
Friends. I know. Valerian is not great. To compare it to Star Wars is laughable—that was a movie that gave us people we cared about, and told a story that engaged us. Here we’re forever standing outside the story, constantly distracted (as the movie is) by that sight, or that character, or that thing on that guy’s uniform. But there’s something about Valerian, anyway, that just spoke with such pure vision, that was clearly the work of an idiosyncratic filmmaker who wants to let his freak flag fly. I have an unabashed affection for a movie like this, apparently the most expensive French movie ever made ($200 million plus, apparently, and not a dollar of it is missing from the screen). It stirs my love of unapologetic pulp, of storytelling that plays in the deep end of the sci-fi pool, of artists who didn’t have to reboot a superhero to embrace their far-out recesses of their creativity, and then pour it on. It actively wants you to get lost within the universe they’re creating, and there’s something just so lovely about that.
By now, you’ve heard enough to know if Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is for you, or if it is not for you. If it is not for you, I’m certain there are other movies out there this summer that are. Especially this year; this has been a pretty good summer. But, folks, it was definitely for me. I’m so happy that it exists, so balls-to-the-wall and unfiltered, and that’s why I can let go of the shoddy acting and indifferent plotting. It’s a mess, but it’s the kind of mess where you can walk out with the silliest grin and say “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
LionsGate presents a film directed by Luc Besson. Screenplay by Luc Besson; based on the graphic novel “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin, Jean-Claude Mézières. Produced by Luc Besson, Virginie Besson-Silla. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Photographed by Thierry Arbogast. Edited by Julien Rey. Production designed by Hugues Tissandier. Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock.