Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on a long-running – and deeply influential – series of French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, is a bracing, unique, vivacious, visually glorious sci-fi adventure that gleefully vibrates with impish life. This is a film of classic picaresque construction – it is said to be one of the primary influences on Star Wars – but possesses a winning, winking cheekiness, as that of a septuagenarian professor who has outgrown his longheld stuffiness, and has now taken to giggling with students and pointing out the bawdy jokes in ancient Greek plays. It’s the best science fiction film of the year.
The film’s prologue is certainly a winner, as we see – via a beautifully constructed montage that spans centuries – how the titular city, Alpha, began as an orbiting Earth space station in the 1970s, and gradually accumulated innumerable people and increasingly bizarre aliens – I believe I spotted a jellyfish-like creature enclosed in a glass case, surrounded by complex robotic limbs – to become the galaxy’s ultimate melting pot. That prologue is followed by astonishing, Edenic scenes of lanky, pale alien creatures who live blissfully by the seaside, praising miniature dragons and harvesting enormous glowing pearls from the surf. It feels like a dream.
In the 28th century, human super-agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) – essentially Mountie-like space cops – are tasked by their boss (Herbie Hancock. No, really) with uncovering a vast mystery that rests at the heart of the city of Alpha, may involve the past of a hard-nosed military careerist (Clive Owen). Their adventure brings them to a magical marketplace that exists in several dimensions at once, the hall of a cannibal troll, into the realm of memory-erasing undersea creatures, seeking the dubious aid of a trio of miniature elephant men, and into the company of a shapeshifting lady-of-the-night named Bubble (Rihanna). You may be astonished to find how well these strange and disparate scenarios flow naturally in to one another.
Valerian and Laureline have a contentious relationship which hovers halfway between flirting and arguing, and if there is a central flaw in Valerian, it likely rests with the casting of Dane DeHaan. DeHaan is a brilliant young actor with hurt, soulful eyes, a handsome face, and the appealing broodiness of a James Dean (whom he has incidentally played). He doesn’t quite possess the natural roguish spark and easygoing rakish affability that the script is clearly asking for. Luckily, he is handily buoyed by Delevingne whose hotheaded impatience and steely capability belies an unexpected depth to the leads’ relationship; She knows they are equally capable officers of the law, and you can tell she kind of resents that he is the one in charge.
The visual variety on display in Valerian is perhaps largely unmatched in the annals of science fiction cinema, easily rivaling Avatar in its convincing building of a palpable imaginary world – I’ll take Mül over Pandora any day – but with a great deal more beauty and imagination. Besson perhaps looked to another French sci-fi classic for his astounding level of aesthetic ambition: René Laloux’s 1973 surrealist classic Fantastic Planet.
Besson is also deft at a subtle and important form of editing that seems all but lost in modern blockbuster cinema, and displays a level of restraint that one may not expect from the maker of hyperactive genre films like Lucy. In, say, your average Marvel flick, one may find that details are flung around haphazardly; Characters enter a large otherworldly chasm or encounter a complex and impressive piece of fantasy machinery, and they – and the filmmakers – take these things frustratingly in stride. They are natural parts of the background.
As such, the audience is never granted a small breath of time to take in that extraordinary scenario and really appreciate it. Besson, in near-imperceptible ways, grants us those small breaths. Every scene is presented carefully, allowing the audience to – imagine that – look around a little. What’s the point of making an impressive world if we’re not allowed to look at it?
I apologize if I have devolved into ecstasy, but I left the Valerian screening feeling as if I had just drunk a cool glass of water after having subsisted for too long on tangy, warm root beer. It’s exactly the type of effects-driven blockbuster I constantly wait for. Luckily, this year, I got it.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for over 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.