There’s a moment in Valerian: City Of A Thousand Planets where Dane DeHaan, sitting in some form of intergalactic strip club, watches Rihanna cavort on a stage. Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke, dressed as what can only be described as a neon cowboy, sits at a piano and cackles maniacally. Believe it or not, this is one of the less surreal things you’ll see in Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi epic.
Adapted from the long-running French comic book series first published 50 years ago, Valerian marks Besson’s return to the manic space opera territory of The Fifth Element: it’s colourful, fast-moving and screamingly kitsch. Indeed, Valerian is so bizarre in places that it makes The Fifth Element, or any other space opera you could name – Guardians Of The Galaxy, Star Wars – look somewhat conservative.
Hundreds of years in the future, when humans have long since branched out to other planets, cocksure space cop Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner and sometime lover Laureline (Cara Delevigne) patrol the galaxy, serving the interests of the human Federation, led by the alarmingly stern Commander Filitt (Clive Owen). Valerian’s charged with retrieving a vanishingly rare creature called a Converter from a group of black market smugglers, and discovers that the armadillo-like little critter once belonged to a race of benign aliens that were long thought extinct. As rival forces fight for control of the Converter, Valerian and Laureline realise there’s some sort of conspiracy going on. Many, many other things happen, and most of those things are borderline impossible to explain in rational terms.
On a budget of over $200m – making this by far the most expensive film ever to hail from France – Besson weaves a saga that is full of digressions and off-the-cuff ideas. There are invisible market cities that can only be seen by wearing special helmets with visors. There are guns that fire heavy, magnetic ball-bearings. There are guns that fire green goo. There are guns that fire clear goo. There are vast creatures that roam around on an alien ocean floor. Rihanna’s a shape-shifter. One high point sees Cara Delevigne shove her head inside a jellyfish that can predict the future.
Valerian is an unfettered, wildly imaginative film, but the downside to all those creative digressions is that the plot never quite gets going. At certain points, your humble writer felt a bit like the two leads, holding onto things by their fingertips and struggling to keep up with what’s happening. The entire movie stops for what feels like a full five minutes for Rihanna’s creepy Moulin Rouge scene.
Cara Delevigne, on the other hand, is great value as Laureline, and in many respects she’s the real hero of the piece – she certainly gets the biggest laughs, and it’s difficult to figure out why Besson didn’t give her equal billing in the title (the movie could as easily have been called Valerian And Laureline, like the comics). Dane DeHaan’s leftfield casting as Valerian, and less charismatic than Delevigne; he tends to exude a certain detached coolness than the warm oafishness of, say, a Chris Pratt or Harrison Ford.
The visual effects are also something of a mixed bag; some are beautiful, but other character designs and animations look a little stiff. It’s a result, perhaps, of the sheer number of VFX sequences crammed into the movie; even for a film of this budget, this is ambitious stuff, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that Besson overreaches himself at times.
All the same, there’s a certain off-kilter charm to Valerian. Sitting in the darkness of a cinema, it’s hard to believe the thing exists; it looks like something beamed in from another dimension – one where it’s normal to see triplets of gargoyles to walk around spaceships, talking nonsense.
As you may have gathered, Valerian‘s something of an acquired taste, and we can only guess how global audiences will react to this amped-up, Gallic space fantasy. But as a big-screen experience, we can safely say that Valerian‘s unlike anything else you’ll see in a cinema this year, and worth seeing just to fully appreciate how curious it all is. This is a movie, after all where a space armadillo aggressively poops out magic pearls. Cult status surely beckons.
Valerian is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd August.