Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
2017, PG-13, 137 min. Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Sam Spruell, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 21, 2017
The wildly extravagant sci-fi fantasy Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a moviegoing experience that’s out of this world. It takes you to some vivid places in the imagination of Luc Besson, the polarizing filmmaker whose highly stylized, genre-mashing, and sometimes hyperviolent action flicks rarely elicit a simple shoulder shrug, or the equivalent of a mere “meh.” Whether you love him (Léon: The Professional, Lucy) or hate him (The Messenger, The Family), you can’t deny this: Besson never does anything half-assed. Here, he reaches back to childhood memories of reading the popular French comic book series Valérian and Laureline, written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, to conjure up a tasty piece of eye candy that most resembles, in both style and content, his flamboyant 1997 science-fiction adventure The Fifth Element, a guilty pleasure that improves with repdeated viewings despite your inability to make heads or tails of its chaotic storyline, one featuring a gibberish-speaking humanoid with a shock of DayGlo orange hair, a mesmerizing opera diva outfitted in blue latex, and an outrageous radio personality dressed in Jean-Paul Gaultier from head to toe. In Valerian, Besson ratchets up his ingenuity several notches, aided and abetted by CGI advancements in the last two decades that allow him to richly envision otherworldly realms, including the titular metropolis of Alpha, a dense intergalactic beehive of manifold species whose harmonious co-existence is purportedly threatened by the contents of a mysteriously aerated box. (An adorable, amphibian-looking creature that can replicate pearl-like spheres of cosmic energy from its scaly epidermis is involved.) The result is a visually fantastic but sometimes exasperating entertainment that (once again) gets lost in its own chaos. It’s one funned-up spectacle of a movie.
The casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the barely legal special operatives tasked to save the universe aims to defy standard notions of what makes a movie hero. While laudable for its unconventionality, the concept fails spectacularly when you’re placing the burden of a $227 million summer tentpole movie on bony shoulders. DeHaan lacks the knack for the wisecrack, and Delevingne lacks the knack for just about everything. You feel as if you’re watching a couple of kids pretend to be grownups, particularly in the scenes in which they romantically bicker like two high school sophomores who can’t decide whether to go steady. With the exception of pop star Rihanna’s brief but compassionate appearance as Bubble, an undocumented shapeshifting alien who works a stripper pole (she’s Sally Bowles! Catwoman! Britney Spears in her Catholic schoolgirl phase!) in Alpha’s red-light district, all of the performances are one-dimensional turns in a 3-D movie, not surprisingly. In addition to the sympathetic character of Bubble, Besson subtly politicizes the film by incorporating the collateral-damage genocide of six million peace-loving aliens on a paradisiacal planet, and embracing a healing message of forgiveness in the face of inhumane militarism without getting too “Kumbaya” cornball in the way James Cameron did in Avatar. But in the end, it’s the vision (literally) of an Americanized Gallic filmmaker that makes Valerian worth a look in a season traditionally chock-full of predictable, big-budget franchise flicks. Just turn off your brain, sit back, and let your eyeballs feast.