Luc Besson’s pipe dream pet project really does feel like a dream; the visuals dazzle, the environments amaze, the makeup is marvelous, the costumes captivate, and the action astounds. All these elements are necessary, because they’ll allow viewers to look past the predictable plot and lacking dialogue in order to immerse themselves in the beautifully crafted interstellar kaleidoscope that is Valerian.
The story opens with Bowie’s Space Odyssey backing a montage of astronauts entering an airlock after docking with the International Space Station. In this alternate universe, there seems to be a sort of peaceful space renaissance, with cosmonauts from China to Russia to Saudi Arabia all joyfully shaking hands with the US spaceman there to greet them. After this rosy introduction is a second sequence showcasing all sorts of different sentient species doing the same thing: docking station modules that mimic their natural environments, and then giving the same handshake in the same airlock. There are extraterrestrials in blocky armor akin to medieval knights of old, fish floating in robotic exosuits, beings which seem to be made entirely of light, and a creative assortment of other aliens.
As things progress over the centuries, the now-massive ISS is too heavy for orbit around Earth, and so is cast off into space to drift, newly christened as Alpha: The City of a Thousand Planets.
With the genesis of the film’s namesake properly set up, the viewer is then transported to Mül, a tropical paradise in which the natives live in perfect harmony with the ecosystem of their planet. The sun is always shining, the waves are always gentle, and the lithely luminescent inhabitants follow peaceful tribal rites in order to maintain the balance of their civilization with nature. This is where you know you’re really in for a treat. The world is beautiful; it’s some of the best CGI I’ve ever seen, and after a bit I found myself engrossed in the view.
Suddenly, a holocaust erupts from the sky, chunks of destroyed starships raining down on the planet as the panicked people of Mül can find nowhere to flee. The king, queen, and a handful of citizens manage to take shelter in a crashed spacecraft, and then their daughter, a favorite of the people, is destroyed in the resulting planetwide explosion after a supermassive warship falls from space and obliterates their world.
This is where we meet Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who’s just woken up on the beach after having the strangest dream about a bunch of glowy beach bum aliens and an exploding ship. This is quickly forgotten as Agent Laureline walks in to distract him, and Cara Delevigne is hard to miss, no doubt part of the reason she was chosen for the role. However, it’s not her beauty but her brains that will come into play time and time again.
The dynamic between the two interstellar agents is supposed to be that of ego-driven hotshot Valerian pursuing the only girl he’s never bedded, Laureline: beautiful, intelligent, his equal in talent at day-saving butt-kickery and therefore in his mind the perfect partner. Laureline resists his advances, as she knows both his heart and mind aren’t in the right place.
The relationship between the two is one of the weakest aspects of the film; the dialogue is stilted, choppy, and for the most part, unconvincing. The two stars try, but to me at least it felt like they were just reading lines. There is one scene near the movie’s end where Laureline speaks tearfully of love, and to Delevigne’s credit, she does a pretty good job. Still, it’s a blessing that Valerian is an action movie and not a drama.
The overall plot as well is nothing special, just your run of the mill generic save the universe and stop the evil conspiracy piece. The film hints so hard at what’s going on you’d have to be nearly blind to miss it. It’s the twists and turns the viewer is taken on and the worlds they experience that really make this film unique. It’s all so over the top that you know this is the film Besson wanted to make when he made The 5th Element.
One of the biggest surprises to me was Rihanna. I knew she was in the movie, but that’s all, as I went in to the viewing knowing next to nothing. I can honestly say I was thoroughly impressed, although the costume quick change stage performance in which she was introduced ran a little long, leaving me wondering when it would end. Still, showing off the shapeshifting abilities of her alien race, the Glam Pods, was necessary to explain the next segment of the story. In return for his help gaining her own freedom, Rihanna’s character Bubble disguises Valerian so that he can save Laureline, a rescue op which of course takes a turn for the humorously strange, involving a very eager servant, a very hungry king, and the galaxy’s strangest buffet line.
There’s a scene where Valerian is trapped in two dimensions at once, one a desert full of tourists and the other a massive mutlicultural, multispecies capitalist’s paradise where aliens from across the universe hawk their wares in a colorful and chaotic cacophony of crowdedness, as if someone took every 3rd-world fish market, gave every fishmonger the anxiety and hyper-elevated heart rate of a Wall Street stock trader, and then blended it all up into a psychedelic smoothie injected straight into your jugular. It’s incredible.
Valerian runs through both the tourist-filled desert and the mind-bending streets at once as he flees his pursuers in not one but both dimensions, at one point crashing downwards through some ten floors, blowing past all sorts of different alien abodes in one of the most interesting and creative sequences of the movie.
Valerian is a film full of stock characters, from the massively obese smuggler who can get you anything for the right price, the evil antagonist hiding a dark secret just under everybody’s nose, the strictly by-the-book military general, the devil-may-care protagonist, and the love interest who endeavors to tame him. But then you’re surprised by someone like Rihanna’s Bubble, or the trio of information-selling, integrity-lacking Dogan Daghuis, strange winged gremlin-like creatures that share thoughts and only make sense when speaking as a group.
The attention to visual detail and crafting of an engrossing experience are really where the movie shines. With the largest budget in French cinematic history at a figure just under $200 million, it shows. The costumes, the makeup, the sets, the props; you could watch the film ten times over and still find something new on the eleventh. This is its saving grace, elevating it from a generic action movie set in space to a funny, exciting, visually engrossing adventure that will have you awestruck more than you expect.
If you haven’t already, see if you can nab a showing of Valerian in theatres; the world will draw you in, and anything other than the big screen wouldn’t do it justice. Just remember: you’re not there for the plot, you’re there for a rollicking visual adventure.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand planets: Rating 7/10