Having not read the decades running French comic series, Valerian and Laureline, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, I can’t speak to how Luc Besson’s latest, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, holds up as an adaptation, but what I can tell you is that it is a gloriously outrageous and kickass good time where Luc Besson gets to be his most Luc Besson-est. Understandably, this means that your mileage may vary with the auteur’s particular brand of eccentricity, humor, and plotting. Me? I live for this kind of stuff. And if you’re a fan of his 1997 classic, The Fifth Element, seeing something like Valerian should be like snuggling into an old jacket and seeing that it still fits.
But make no mistake, Valerian is far from a retread of The Fifth Element, it is very much its own thing. It follows two special operative agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who start out on a mission to capture a creature (the last of its kind), only to find themselves in a complex plot involving a seemingly dead race of aliens, potential cover-ups, and a race against time as they have to stop whatever is causing the trouble or Alpha (the titular City of a Thousand Planets) could be in danger.
It’s kind of standard stuff when written out like that, but the actual experience of Valerian is really something to behold. It has a very classical feel in its characters and world building, very old school, very pulpy, but with a progressive edge. Think the politics of the original Star Trek show, but with the pacing and constant excitement of the first Star Wars. It’s beautifully set up with an incredible opening sequence (set to Space Oddity by David Bowie) in which we see a space station slowly grow over time as different alien species join, share their knowledge, and work in harmony with one another. It’s an unabashedly optimistic vision of the future, and the drive to preserve that peace and understanding is a clever way of setting up the stakes as the film goes on.
It should be said that the star of the film isn’t Valerian and Laureline, it is the world they inhabit. Luc Besson and his team has fleshed out so much that encompasses this universe, it’s straight up mind-boggling. He’s also gracious enough to keep exposition to a minimum, allowing visual cues and context to make you understand the various alien species or other space craziness. As a result, there are things in this film that I legitimately have never seen before. An early action sequence involving multiple dimensions left me with my jaw to the floor. The film was something that Luc Besson had wanted to do for years, and took many more just to come to fruition, and all that passion and hard work shows on the screen.
The film also packs a surprisingly relevant punch. While it never goes too in depth into these ideas, the story deals with things like refugees, institutionalised corruption, extremism, the struggles of immigrants, etc. And these ideas are all brought up in service to show that having a universe where everyone supports one another and works together instead of creating meaningless conflict is a universe worth saving and fighting for. It is the kind of attitude that feels necessary considering the times we’re currently living in, but not just as mere distraction, but as something we should be able to strive toward.
But the worldbuilding isn’t all that makes this great. Cara Delevingne is finally utilized in a way that takes advantage of her strange screen presence while also bringing heart and earnestness. She easily commands the screen whenever she is on. The side characters are distinctive, colorful, and bring some of the funniest moments in the film. Rihanna also shows up at one point, putting on one hell of a (literal) showstopping performance, and the surprises that came with her character were just as interesting. And Ethan Hawke showing up out of nowhere as a pimp with a cowboy hat named Jolly the Pimp gave me the biggest smile.
Now, as much as I loved the film, it isn’t perfect. For one, Dane DeHaan, while being perfectly serviceable in the grand scheme of things, is totally miscast. He has a very specific energy to him that makes him perfect for moody and intense roles like Chronicle or even this year’s A Cure for Wellness, but that energy makes him fall short when he’s going for swashbuckler. It just doesn’t fully work. The film also isn’t the most tightly plotted. As I said, the real star of the movie is the universe and the various creatures and technology that inhabit it, so it seems like whenever Besson had the choice to either take the simpler/easier route (but less interesting or cool) or take a detour that might be a bit more convoluted (but will lead to a sequence that will totally make it worthwhile) as the plot develops, he will always pick the latter. This isn’t so much a problem for me, as I am absolutely enthralled by all the details and spectacle, but for people who prefer to understand every single plot development will likely find themselves a bit frustrated at several points.
While I can fully acknowledge that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may have some issues, it’s the kind of film that just pushes all the right buttons for me. It’s bold, beautiful, and eccentric work science fiction with loads of personality to spare. It’s also an optimistic work of science fiction that celebrates unity and knowledge and the wonders that the universe has to offer in a way that is both utterly gonzo and sincere. Big budget films don’t often get this inventive, unusual, classical, and so very much its own thing. It offers designs, moments of visual trickery and awe with so much gusto that there was never a single moment in the film where I wasn’t charmed, thrilled, or both at the same time. It is absolutely a film that I can see myself revisiting often, and it is definitely one of the best films of 2017 thus far.