Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets August 1, 2017
2 Hrs., 17 Mins.
ecause the summer movie season is often defined by a parade of would-be blockbusters made for no other reason besides emptying the pockets of a bored public, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) makes for a rejuvenating rush. An entanglement of Technicolor delights and other visual excesses, it is a sci-fi epic that harkens back to the days wherein we could be engulfed in a sea of our own childlike
wonder. To watch it is akin to reading an especially good fantasy novel or thumbing through the pages of a particularly immersive comic at the age of 10, its inner worlds sweeping and its ideas and images inexhaustibly interesting. As a successful science fiction movie should, it prompts us to desire to sometimes step out of the confines of the storyline just to explore the various dreamlands fabricated.
Besson’s career has been leading to this moment. Already one of the more prolific voices in the film industry, directing dependably like Woody Allen but producing with the almost fanatical diligence of Jesús Franco, his works have often brought to mind a subversive quantity over quality sentiment. When Besson can find the common ground between his artistic indulgences and a certain degree of focus, though, coming out the other side with a classic in hand isn’t out of the question. From Nikita (1990) to Léon: The Professional (1994), Besson, in light of sometimes damaging his reputation as a repercussion of his excesses (just look at 2014’s skull-crushingly bad Lucy), is capable of fashioning a masterpiece as audacious as any.
Valerian most closely resembles his 1995 space opera The Fifth Element, which has since become a cult classic after passable reviews and sales during its initial theatrical run. But where The Fifth Element was sometimes off-putting in its puerile sense of humor and its more tacky than splendorous visuals, everything about Valerian comes together swimmingly as a wholly escapist experience. Besson is conscious of the material’s superfluity and has fun with it.
The feature is, after all, a passion project — Besson has been an ardent fan of the comics on which the movie is based, Valérian and Laureline, since elementary school. In his years of filmmaking, he had not considered adapting the saga, given its size and its scope. But while working on The Fifth Element, which gave him the confidence to realize that maybe gargantuan sci-fi wasn’t too difficult a genre to master, he met Jean-Claude Mézerières, the illustrator behind the comics.
Impressed by Besson’s adventuresome filmmaking spirit, Mézerières encouraged the director to enliven his work on the silver screen. At the time, Besson figured Valérian and Laureline to be impossible to adapt, laughing such suggestions off. But Mézerières’ encouragement would come back to Besson in the latter part of the 2000s when Avatar (2009) came out and made the case that the making of an outré fantasy was a viable possibility.
After seven months of storyboarding, long-winded personal funding and independent crowdsourcing, and the inevitable productional snags to come with an expensive French production shot in English, we have an idiosyncratic vision more joyous than anything Cameron could ever make in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s undemanding popcorn fare that never gets crushed under the weight of Besson’s ideas.
Like the original Star Wars films (1977-1983), it hosts a variety of fanciful creatures and takes detours into a diverse array of galaxies and the planets residing within them. (One early misadventure finds the movie’s protagonists undergoing a mission located on a planet in which all can only be seen and felt with yellow shades and ultra-sensitive gloves; have neither and you find yourself wandering aimlessly atop a miles-long desert.) The story, too, is generally frivolous, finding our heroes, galaxy-hopping special agents Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), breaking the rules — and getting lost — trying to restore the livelihood of an alien race a government leader carelessly wiped out.
But the frilliness of the storyline and the sensory overload of the visuals (finally making a case for extensive CGI usage) is easy to warm up to. Watching Valerian, we feel the same enchantment we might as a child reading C.S. Lewis for the first time. We’re spellbound by the worlds Besson presents to us, and we’re so fond of the nearly procedural sequencing of the film (there’s an overarching storyline like any TV season, with one-off episodes keeping us busy) that we near instantaneously decide that Valerian and Laureline are the kinds of characters we want to go on escapades with, too.
The various characters who pop up, from Rihanna’s shape-shifting entertainer Bubble to a trio of beaked con artists who humorously sell secrets for high prices, add to the delirium. And the opening sequence, which rivals the singular, otherworldly beauty of Pandora through the creation of Mül, a beached, utopian planet, features some of the best computer animation in recent memory.
All is spectacular, unapologetic decadence, hurt only slightly by DeHaan’s miscasting. Though the actor carries the role confidently, the womanizing, patriotic Valerian should be played by a someone possessing old Hollywood ruggedness, like Oscar Isaac or Armie Hammer.
But DeHaan’s underwhelming presence is consistently made forgivable thanks to Delevingne, the button-nosed supermodel who, despite an uneasy transition from the runway to the screen in part to a myriad of so-so onscreen performances, has finally announced herself a star. Spunky but elegant, Delevingne comfortably suits the movie’s frolicsome nature and effortlessly transitions into dramatic nuance when necessary. She’s dynamite. And in a picture painted only in thick brush strokes, performative pluck is key — have anything less and the actors might find themselves submerged.
As expected with a film so holistically itself, all abstraction with no connections to a franchise, a mainstream filmmaker, or internationally beloved leads, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, already costing somewhere around $200 million, has been deemed a box-office bomb. Having made less than $20 million domestically in its opening weekend and having been saddled with mixed reviews — a predictable glut of love-it-or-hate-it write-ups — it’s going to lose a lot of money and in no doubt will lose favor in the eyes of a public who so easily decides a movie is a bad one if it’s called a financial disaster enough times. But the years will be kind to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This is exactly the sort of bold, accessible space opera that will, with enough time, find a small, very loyal fanbase. Consider me part of it. A