A thousand "Wow"s, a few woes; the work of a weirdo in love with wonder.
The first thing that you should know about Luc Besson’s return to the space opera genre, two decades after The Fifth Element split critics and gained cult status, is that he hasn’t set out to do anything differently in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets. This isn’t like any other major blockbuster released this year. In its structure, characters and imagination, Valerian does things differently. Its closest counterpart this year is, coincidentally, another Dane DeHaan starrer, Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness. They’re both apparently carte blanche films for eccentric directing talents, which end up as lopsided, thoroughly weird beasts.
Whatever technologies, aliens or worlds you believe you’ve seen in every other space opera, Besson’s not only gone a step beyond with his visions here, he’s brought ten new visions atop every recycled one. The superb opening mixes a humanistic vision through international cooperation, with colourfully diverse realisations of humanity’s future (with reference made to Afro-futurism), followed by decidedly non-anthropomorphic alien races strutting Besson’s catwalk. Soundtracked to Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, it’s grounded in a shared past, literally expanding borders of nations and of cinema to create a future that’s at once outlandish and almost mundane in its familiarity. It’s a masterwork, establishing elaborate backstory through simplistic staples of film language. And Besson’s only warming up.
Part of the fun is in not expecting how strange the worlds of Valerian are. Even a small selection of what’s on offer isn’t enough to sell the at once surreal and lived-in universe on display. The seatbelts on our heroes’ ship activate when they make a crucifixion pose; a desert planet mixes the popular teal and orange colour palette into its very sand; a tourist resort on the same planet is situated in an alternate dimension where the clunky 70s style technology which grants access brushes against a neo-noir vibrancy from a dystopic future; an alien species with the same stature and serenity as Avatar’s Na’vi make ritual contributions using a lizard-chinchilla’s duplicating bowels; the converging cultures and environments on eponymous space station Alpha are showcased via a Oner that follows Dane DeHaan’s space cop Major Valerian charging directly through it.
Truly fresh and individual worlds are rare, as are the “Wow!” moments which come with them. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is so stuffed with invention that it alternates between childlike glee in the display, and an almost blasé, matter-of-fact relationship with its treasures. But make no mistake – the showcase is entirely the point. Which means the plot is the secondary experience. What little there is follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) as they work to uncover a mysterious entity at the heart of Alpha that threatens all life aboard the station.
However, the vast majority of incidence is the result of Valerian or partner Laureline (Cara Delevigne) being side-tracked, kidnapped, and stalled by setbacks. It’s a practically screwball story of two dedicated work partners constantly being separated to farcical degree. Besson pleasingly doesn’t bother to keep up the pretence, almost immediately dropping the conspiracy in favour of a far more open approach, where the audience has all the immediate information that every character does. Structurally, this is great for the universe, and for the film’s pacing; but once Besson reveals every card, along with the characters’ and film’s hearts for examination, it’s too late. The balance of plot vs. story just isn’t right.
Part of the trouble is casting. Delevigne is remarkable in her role as Laureline, acting as both Valerian’s moral anchor, object of affection, and capable partner-in-space-copping. Whilst she gets the opportunity to let that cool dismissiveness slip intentionally (hello psychic jellyfish!), DeHaan is not allowed the same luxury. Casting someone who appears the same age as the romantic interest as the character which more traditional pulp narratives would have at several years Laureline’s senior is perhaps Besson attempting to subvert those masculine tropes, but this causes a separate issue: DeHaan is very good at playing weird characters in typically ideally masculine roles, but that only works for him if the masculine ideal is just a mask. His Valerian comes off as a stubborn, cocky kid in a James Bond fantasy, except he’s genuinely as skilled as the fantasy version he’s playing at. The character arc is supposed to be about him showing the emotional vulnerability to Laureline that proves he’s not a posturing boy, but this realisation doesn’t arrive until halfway through the narrative, and it’s never paid off in convincing actions. It leaves us two cocky and capable protagonists, only one of whom gets to be vulnerable, and make the balance work.
When Besson arrives at the film’s point, he comes across a little behind the times – we’re about 20 years past two-dimensional discussions of indigenous cultures’ “wisdom” compared to Western, colonialist militarism – and that’s before you factor in the white saviorism. Thing is, as frustratingly condescending as the portrayal can be, there are loads of fascinating ideas to be found here: how Western society likes to remember or forget other people’s tragedies, the vitality that comes with interconnected cultures, and what being vulnerable means when you job is to be a badass. So much of this is brought up or addressed, yet it’s done so in the clumsiest, most dialogue-heavy way possible. Besson’s heart is always in its humanist, forward-thinking place; that doesn’t do much to deafen its thunderingly clunky beating.
Still, there’s a sugar rush excitement that comes with Besson’s slickly choreographed set-pieces, each finding a way to elicit its own moment of pure, dumbfounding joy. You truly will not see another blockbuster of this mind-boggling scale and invention all year; more to the point, whatever she does in Ocean’s Eight next year, it’s in this film that you’ll see Rihanna perform her butt off in about 9 distinct, unashamedly kinky outfits, so, there’s that.
Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate Pictures. Certificate 12A.