Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film that refuses to let a single action sequence play out simply. Its director, Luc Besson, has long excelled at set pieces with a twist—think of the backwards car chase in his last feature, Lucy. But for his newest project, he’s painting on a far grander canvas: A tense showdown at an alien bazaar unfolds in two different dimensions that exist in the same space. In a chase scene, the movie’s hero has to blast straight through dozens of walls in a space station to have any hope of catching his quarry. A high-dive rescue mission gets complicated by the presence of aliens fishing for humans with giant poles.
In an era of expensive, paint-by-numbers blockbusters, Besson’s latest, and biggest, film is a day-glo delight, a true original that deserves to be remembered despite—or perhaps partly because of—its various silly excesses. The movie is based on the landmark French comic series Valérian and Laureline, a ’60s pop sci-fi classic about two “spatio-temporal agents” who travel the galaxy together fighting crime. To do this widely beloved work justice, Besson has aimed as high as possible, delivering a $200 million-plus epic that hardly lets a minute go by without lobbing some new bit of visual trickery at the viewer.
Valerian is the rare film I’d actually recommend trying to see in 3-D; the effects, while plentiful, are rendered with gorgeous clarity. Like a lot of Besson’s work, it’ll probably largely be dismissed as a stylish mess upon release, eventually becoming a cult classic one can imagine captivating midnight theater-goers for decades to come. But Valerian is animated by the same humanist impulses that have driven all of Besson’s best movies—from Léon: The Professional to The Fifth Element—and it has much more to offer than just dizzying spectacle.
Valerian opens with a wonderful montage charting the creation of the massive interstellar city of the film’s title, Alpha—a conglomeration of space stations and hundreds of alien races that has slowly grown over the centuries. But the story is also concerned with an unnamed paradise planet, populated by big-eyed, gem-farming aliens, that was destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. That Armageddon event is somehow tied to strange goings-on at Alpha, and it’s up to the space-soldiers Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to investigate.
The dastardly plot at the center of it all is straightforward enough. But Besson (who also wrote the script) layers in absurd side stories and complicated pieces of world-building, much of it surely straight from the comics, to keep the film’s hefty 137-minute running time from feeling slack. After the early mission at the multi-dimensional bazaar, both Valerian and Laureline get to indulge in their own solo missions and interact with various wacky supporting characters (the most important of whom is Bubble, a shape-shifting alien played by Rihanna) before finally solving the main puzzle of the doomed beach planet.
The convoluted plotting and manic visuals are easy enough to get on board with, especially if you’re fond of space operas like Star Wars (Valerian especially reminded me of George Lucas’s prequels, except it knows how to have fun) or the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending. But, as with those movies, the dialogue is at times overly expositional, and attempts at humor or romance can be remote and clunky—Besson’s skill as a writer has never been his banter, which this film has plenty of, especially when it’s introducing the dynamic between Valerian and Laureline.
But stick with it through its awkward early moments, and Valerian will yield deeper insights into Besson’s overall artistic philosophy. DeHaan’s deadpan work quickly grew on me once I understood the arc he was going for: a hard-bitten soldier becoming more comfortable with disobeying orders in the name of the greater good. I hadn’t bought the hype on Delevingne as a movie star before now—her biggest roles were in the young-adult drama Paper Towns and the train wreck that was Suicide Squad—but she’s magnetic here, perfectly embodying Besson’s conception of heroism (which tends to be more open-hearted than the wise-cracking, aloof version typical of Hollywood movies).
Valerian is the kind of science-fiction film that doesn’t get made enough anymore. It’s unafraid to embrace the expansive potential of its genre, to make each new location, costume, and alien creature feel like the wildest version of itself. Besson’s ambitions remain as limitless as they were in his first go-round at the genre, 20 years ago, and they may doom Valerian to “intriguing curio” status rather than out-of-the-box sensation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Valerian deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, a cinema experience that takes advantage of every moment it has with you.
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