Phrases like “world-building” are a dime a dozen in Hollywood nowadays, and the words “cinematic universe” seem to accompany the press release for each and every summer blockbuster. And yet, almost none of these multiplying onscreen wonderlands has displayed a fraction of the imagination and creativity that is bursting at the seams of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a sci-fi fantasia that often exceeds our greatest flights of fancy. For a purely psychedelic space opera, Valerian is indeed hard to beat for genre fans desiring a new take on the future. Like the Devil, Valerian’s quality is in the details.
It’s thus a bit of a shame then that for all the demented randomness that Besson paints into the margins of this French yé-yé pop concoction, the picture is fairly bland at its center, with two barely serviceable leads in a storyline that merely holds up the tent of Besson’s visual ambitions, as opposed to filling it with anything resembling actual sincerity or a driving narrative. Even so, this is such a refreshingly daring space odyssey that it’s hard to begrudge the international production’s wish to boldly go where few franchises would ever dream about trekking toward: something weird. At times, gloriously so.
Based on the French Valerian and Laureline comic book series of the 1960s and ‘70s from Besson’s youth, this 2017 film offers a vision of space that is both out-there and decidedly retro. Besson stands firm that the European comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières was a major influence on George Lucas’ Star Wars, and that element is certainly at play in Valerian, which presents a galaxy 500 years from now that moves and grooves as if the Mos Eisley cantina has set the pace for the whole of time and space.
In this context, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are two top secret-ish agents for Alpha, the titular “city of a thousand planets.” Alpha began as an Earth-orbiting space station that eventually grew so vast and utopian after more and more aliens joined its expanding structure that it had to leave our solar system and track its own path. Four hundred years onward, nearly every peaceful species (and a few not-so-nice ones) live in this land, from its Blade Runner-esque cityscapes to its giant underwater regions for the more amphibious inclined.
Valerian, who is something of a cocky horn dog even though he looks more like a Brooklyn-bound hipster, is a soldier who professes a love for Alpha almost as often as he does his adored Laureline. But his female partner is decidedly traditional, only wishing to be with the man she’ll one day marry… and for now, that does not mean Valerian. Yet as Valerian begins having psychic visions of an idyllic alien race that appears to have been wiped out by an asteroid, they both find themselves in an investigation that involves murder, political dissonance, the cutest and cuddliest MacGuffin this side of a Tribble, and a conspiracy that takes them to the heart of Alpha and beyond.
One of the most enjoyably eccentric auteur voices of the 1990s, there was a time when Luc Besson could do no wrong. The original La Femme Nikita, Leon, and The Fifth Element all linger as peculiar cult classics. And Valerian is very much attempting to revisit that continental mania, particularly of the Element variety since that was Besson’s last space opera with tonal shifts that really were out of this world. It’s easy to say that Valerian is his best movie since that triumvirate, if for no other reason than nothing he has directed in the last 20 years has been particularly good. Nevertheless, Valerian conjures up a sense of forgotten mischief that’s always steering the ship toward the direction of left field.
So it is that Valerian bounces between visuals and aesthetics like a tie-dye themed pinball machine. In a movie where almost everything is computer-generated, it matters not a fig how “realistic” any of it appears, because it is all so invitingly intoxicating. Force fields can be the color of rainbows, and beatific aliens with chromed domes and legs longer than Cyd Charisse can live on a planet consisting entirely of Caribbean beaches, glittering pearls, and cute beasties that are a cross between lapdogs and cuddly porcupines. That these are also the bigger spieces’ source of space travel power just makes it more appealingly nutty.
Indeed, the film opens with a series of dynamite sequences, including a hypnotically optimistic prologue where—scored to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—NASA, Chinese, and European astronauts over generations befriend one weird alien after another. There is also an action sequence with tech so curious that it has a self-evident internal logic… but it’s one the film doesn’t feel compelled to explain. Bodily possession of foreign species and astral projections of one’s digital self to the other side of the universe are all technologically showcased, but the movie sheepishly cares not if you just chalk it up to magic.
Unfortunately, as the plot eventually overtakes these stoner daydreams, the movie forgoes its pie in the sky thrills for feet of clay. DeHaan is a very good character actor who is not-so-convincingly cast as a Han Solo type here. In an American movie industry crawling with Chrises more than capable of attempting such a gig, it’s a bit of a mystery why Besson went so drastically against type other than perhaps he wanted to represent the real face of the toking audience for these kind of mind-bending adventures. Delevingne meanwhile carries herself with plenty of beguiling mystery and poise, but when her character is supposed to be somewhat old-fashioned, lighthearted, and smitten, she doesn’t come off much more real than the digital vistas. Intriguingly, both actors play better against the many CG-creations than with each other, but neither has the charisma necessary to really make this will-they-or-won’t-they story payoff.
For more than any sci-fi elements, the most retro aspect about the story is a romance that would not have been out of place in a ‘60s rom-com starring Jane Fonda and Cliff Robertson, where leads grapple with the idea of intimacy out of wedlock (the horror!). But it lands with a thud here as do all of the telegraphed plot developments which drives much of the movie’s second half.
Still even in those later acts, there is still delight to be had, especially when the picture detours into the bizarre. For instance, Rihanna’s cameo as a stripper named Bubble is best experienced unto itself, and Ethan Hawke enjoys a small role just as gleefully mad as her manager, “Jolly the Pimp.”
As a whole, the movie keeps these flourishes coming and builds a universe with more detail in one movie than some shared universes have in dozens of them. For those who want to get lost in a sci-fi Never Land brimming with oddities, the plot can be damned. But for those who are beholden to straightforward storytelling, this could travel just a little too far from home. Which is a shame, because that journey is the picture’s greatest asset.