'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets'
There used to be a thriving market of European filmmakers who made trashy exploitation movies for a global market. Sadly, Luc Besson is essentially the last man standing in this genre movie tradition. But he’s also one of the most successful of all time, producing and writing delightfully trashy action flicks like the ‘Transporter’ and ‘Taken’ series while also directing his own distinctly French productions that compete on the global marketplace. ‘Valerian’ is a passion project that Besson has nursed along for years and now, two decades after his cult classic ‘The Fifth Element’, it hits screens as an almost unofficial sequel.
The weird and wacky, semi-profound and deeply entertaining ‘The Fifth Element’ has endured for decades because it’s a rare blockbuster space opera with a distinctly personal touch. Only Luc Besson could have made it, and if it’s obvious the film sprung from teenage fantasies that he refused to abandon into adulthood. That’s just part of the flick’s goofball charms. ‘Valerian’ is a little different. It’s based on a classic French comic book that inspired Besson’s sci-fi fantasies so many moons ago. As a result, the movie is a bit more sincere and ambitious than its predecessor. However, since this is still a Luc Besson film, the ultimate motivation is pure entertainment value. ‘Valerian’ delivers plenty of that, guilty pleasure and otherwise.
The convoluted plot centers on a pair of cutie-pie special agents of what can only be assumed is a police force for the universe. They’re played by rising stars Dane DeHaan (the guy with the face of Leonardo DiCaprio and the voice of Keanu Reeves) and Cara Delevingne (the gal with the most famous of all eyebrows) as wise-cracking action heroes with a flirtatious energy that can only end in love. Of course, to fulfill that personal pleasure, they’ll first have to finish their most complicated mission to date. It starts when Valerian (DeHaan) has a dream about a distant planet of beings he’s never seen before getting destroyed, then continues when he and his partner Laureline (Delevingne) inter-dimensionally disrupt (don’t ask) an illegal sale to some of those mysterious creatures. That kicks off a conspiracy involving Clive Owen’s corrupt space army commander, a cute creature that poops pearls, a massive space station filled with thousands of alien races, plenty of shoot-outs, a few spaceship dogfights, and a strip club featuring a shape-shifting Rihanna and a sleazy announcer inexplicably yet amusingly portrayed by Ethan Hawke.
This is one weird movie, especially given the massive scale of the production. It’s a straightforward sci-fi action epic filled with gorgeous effects and visceral thrills, but filtered through a perverse and unpredictable imagination. Luc Besson crafts a neon eye-fuck fantasyland of bizarre creatures, impossible architecture and strange sci-fi concepts. Seemingly every scene features some sort of unforgettable image, whether it be a massive space market so large it can only be experienced through VR headsets that combine storefronts across several dimensions, or an alien feast with live human brains on the menu. The design is inspired by 1960s/’70s European sci-fi comic book art (just like ‘The Fifth Element’), expressed through blindingly bright colors, rich details, and a multicultural explosion of design influences. As pure eye candy, it’s easy to lose yourself in the film, especially when augmented through delightfully enveloping and gimmicky 3D.
It’s also an unapologetically silly and even stupid enterprise. Besson is a filmmaker driven more by sensation than logic, so not everything adds up and the symbolism and metaphors he employs are as loud and garish as his visuals. That’ll irritate some viewers used to the more conventional screenwriting employed in Hollywood blockbusters that rigidly play by screenplay textbook rules. Besson doesn’t care about that. He just wants to tickle viewers’ eyes and earholes until they giggle. Turn of your brain long enough to enjoy a montage of humans meeting aliens in a fantasy future set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and you’ll get sucked in. Complain about the silliness of the images, the illogic of the fantasy, or the obviousness of the song choice, and you’ll check out while missing the point. This is willfully adolescent fantasy.
As is likely to be expected by a film so driven by image and momentum, the human performances rarely live up to the world around them. That’s a bit of a shame since ‘The Fifth Element’ was so perfectly cast with actors big enough for its world. That’s not always the case here. The supporting players are suitably eccentric and excessive, from John Goodman voicing an alien gangster, Ethan Hawke doing cartoon sleaze, Clive Owen snarling through his bad guy role, or even Rhianna playfully shape-shifting her way through a burlesque dance that doubles as a history lesson in female fetishization. While those side-players all get the jokes and excesses of the world that they’re playing in, the leads unfortunately stick out at times. That’s not to say that DeHaan and Delevingne are bad in the movie. Both are strong performers who do their best to ground outlandish material. The trouble is that they aren’t as playful, campy or ironic as the film surrounding them. They’re doing straightforward comic book acting in a movie that should be played in ironic quotation marks. It likely helps sell their action scenes as more dramatic, but also robs the film of some fun and kills laughs that should have landed.
Thankfully, the complaints to be launched at ‘Valerian’ are minor for those who know what they’re getting. Those who just don’t like Luc Besson’s brand of sincere silliness will balk at how outrageously goofy this film gets in an era when even ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ are treated as somber drama. This film isn’t for them. However, those who love ‘The Fifth Element’ or any old space opera that dared to be ridiculous for the sake to stoking the fires of imagination will smile themselves silly whenever their mouths aren’t agape at the day-glo acidhead ’60s sci-fi fantasy filling the screen. It’s kind of amazing that Besson was able to get something so weird and of another era financed and released on this scale. Hopefully it won’t be the last time. No one else does sci-fi like him because no one else is allowed to, for better or worse.