Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
A universe without boundaries needs heroes without limits.
In a summer of lackluster, unimaginative blockbusters Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets comes as a breath of fresh air. The latest sci-fi extravaganza from French auteur Luc Besson — you know, the guy who bought us the flash futuristic fantasy The Fifth Element (1997) — Valerian is based on the groundbreaking French comic strip named Valérian et Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières. Comprising of some twenty-one volumes (and a bunch of short stories), Valérian and Laureline ran for a whopping four-plus decades (from 1967 to 2010), the series cited as being hugely influential on contemporary Hollywood science-fiction — it’s even been rumored that Star Wars engineer George Lucas stole key ideas and designs from this European masterwork, architects Christin and Mézières (still) allegedly awaiting an apology.
Fun Fact: It’s said that Besson was ready to adapt Valérian and Laureline back in the mid-1990s but opted to craft The Fifth Element instead (which, as it turned out, borrowed a great deal from said comic-book), Besson convinced that VFX technology (way back when) wasn’t advanced enough, or up to scratch, to do the property justice.
Heavily shaped by events of book 6, Besson’s movie using the ‘Ambassador of the Shadows’ storyline as its main source of inspiration, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets blasts off with a jaw-dropping prologue, this set to the majestic sound of David Bowie’s 1969 hit ‘Space Oddity (Ground Control to Major Tom),’ Ziggy Stardust’s hopeful ode to a ‘better tomorrow’ the perfect way to launch the film. Here we witness the evolution of the titular City of a Thousand Planets; originally a small satellite orbiting Earth, this simple outpost (over many millennia and the coming-together of numerous alien nations) grows to become a multi-cultural metropolis, eventually earning the name Alpha (once leaving Earth’s orbit), the Space Station (home to some 8,000 species) a convergence point or meeting ground for earthlings and the many other extra-terrestrial life-forms living amongst the stars — it’s a place where diverse beings from the four corners of the universe can co-exist peacefully, pooling their individual talents, knowledge, technology and culture. Possibly my favorite scene of 2017 (thus far), this cleverly conceived montage is worth the price of admission alone.
Cut to the 28th century, the year 2740. Enter intergalactic operatives Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a brave yet mischievous space-age investigator working for the Government of Human Territories, and his steely, whip-smart partner, the fearless Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who’s no damsel in distress, these guys maintaining peace and order throughout the known galaxy. Although a bit of a philanderer, Valerian is a hopeless romantic at heart, Laureline having to dodge his constant advancements (and a sudden wedding proposal), our heroine unsure whether to take her colleague’s flirtatious propositions seriously. From the get-go, it’s evident that writer-director Besson wholly idolizes Laureline (she was, after all, the dude’s boyhood crush), the character first seen flaunting her sexy supermodel bod, lolling around the beach in a teeny-tiny bikini.
It’s here, however, that Valerian hits its first hyperdrive bump. You see, actor Dane DeHaan is (as expected) simply not roguish enough to embody the ‘lady-killer’ space cowboy, the 31-year-old performer coming off as way too scrawny and boyish for the part — he’s a tad too Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet-esque for me, what, with that tawdry Hawaiian shirt and boy-band hair-do. The headline role would have been much more suited to a dashing, debonair type star, someone with a bit more swagger — perhaps a Chris Pratt or, dare I say, young Bruce Campbell. Either way, DeHaan feels more than a little miscast. On the flipside, model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne fits the babeish Barbarella like a glove, Laureline clearly wearing the pants in the relationship, the English bombshell proving to have some serious pipes, too, her soulful tune, ‘I Feel Everything,’ (produced by the legendary Pharrell Williams), which plays through the end credits, a funky way to finish the film. Look, it certainly would have helped if leads DeHaan and Delevingne shared more of a spark (or a semblance of chemistry), this void and lifeless pairing a match made in a black hole, these characters nowhere near as interesting (or relatable) as they ought to have been. But, hey, kudos to both for stepping up to the challenge, as filling these boots would’ve been a daunting task for anyone, even the most seasoned of stars!
Anyhow, our story opens with Valerian waking from a vivid dream-like ‘transmission,’ our hero witnessing the annihilation of an enlightened alien race — shimmering humanoids (who farm for gems) called The Pearls — their tropical beach idyll, the planet Mül, destroyed by a gargantuan plummeting spacecraft. On route to the desert planet Kirian, tasked with infiltrating the shadowy underworld of Big Market — a bustling intra-dimensional bazaar that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen — Valerian and Laureline must outsmart the dubious space-pirate Igon Siruss (voiced by John Goodman), the ogre-type brute, who masterminds the criminal circuit, currently in possession of the film’s McGuffin. Under strict orders from the Minister of Defence (Herbie Hancock), the space-cops are instructed to retrieve the last surviving Mül Converter — a rare bite-sized reptilian with extraordinary supernatural abilities, this scaly animal able to duplicate anything it swallows. And, just like that, this 18-minute dimension hopping heist (our protagonists zipping in and out of two separate realities) more-or-less steals the show, the sequence displaying the limitless imagination of Besson and the pioneering source material.
After narrowly escaping with their lives, the ‘spatio-temporal’ agents return home to their headquarters on Alpha, this via The Intruder — a spaceship that looks awfully similar to Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon — their precious cargo, the Convertor, carefully tucked away on board. Once back on the star-base, the duo’s primary objective becomes to protect an overtly nefarious Commander, Arün Filitt (a ‘meh’ Clive Owen), even though the containment of a mysterious, highly-toxic ‘virus’ at the center of Alpha seems to be a matter of much greater concern, this unknown force, if not cordoned correctly, threatening the lives of all whom reside on the Thousand Planet star. However, when a Grand Council (of representatives) meeting is violently interrupted by some surviving Pearls, who kidnap the Commander then flee into the quarantine zone, officers Valerian and Laureline (not knowing who to trust) embark on a dangerous quest to recover their abducted superior, this mission inadvertently thrusting them down a different path, one to save the extinct Mül people, whose peaceful civilization had been wiped from the history books, fallen Pearl Princess Lïhio-Minaa (Sasha Luss) having summoned Valerian to their aid eons ago.
Twenty years after the release of The Fifth Element (a movie that very much captured the attention of a generation), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets sees prolific filmmaker Luc Besson return to the genre he clearly admires most, this time on a much grander scale, Valerian a dream come true for the 58-year-old Besson — and for sci-fi nerds everywhere, this big, bright, exuberant space spectacular loaded with every trope in the book. One will no doubt spot similarities between Valerian and other notable science-fiction franchises; we have a multitude of lived-in alien lands, epic spaceship battles, and what sci-fi would be complete without weaponized warbots, Commander Filitt’s army of anti-riot androids, known as K-Tron soldiers, ticking that ‘essential’ off the list.
Written by Besson, Valerian often bites off more than it can chew, the screenplay juggling a handful of storythreads all at the one time (with varying degrees of success). Semi-episodic in structure, Valerian jumps from being a serious ‘save the galaxy’ type space opera one minute, to a kooky Futurama (1999) style comedy the next, its tone a little twisty-turny and its pace manic. Moreover, the narrative, which is far from conventional, can be way too brain scrambling for some and a smidgen hard to follow, the flick running out of blaster juice (ever so slightly) by the time the third act explodes onto the screen. There’s also a layer of real-world subtext woven into the script, ideas surrounding immigration crisis — The Pearls being our refugees — and government corruption, with higher-ups bending the truth to suit their own political agendas. With that said, some of the space-capade’s best bits are its dippy detours; a b-plot centering around a race of simple-minded bug-eyed ‘fisher-beasts,’ who try to serve Laureline to their gluttonous ruler, is a fun diversion — even if it stops proceedings dead in their tracks — while a sequence set in the seedy adult-entertainment district, Paradise Alley, is pure dynamite, an expertly choreographed burlesque act by Rihanna’s Bubble (a pulsating, shape-shifting glamopod) a sizzling show-stopper.
Audiences are also treated to a plethora of neat and natty, out-there concepts, some so wack that they’re near impossible to wrap one’s head around — the telepathic Mylea jellyfish being just one example, Laureline forced to yank this umbrella-shaped sea-beast off the back of a 300-ton aquatic bottom-dweller before sticking it onto her head (for no longer than a minute) in order to help her pinpoint the location of, and track down, her missing comrade. Weird, huh?
But that’s not all, viewers also get a chance to see some of the unusual critters lurking in the background; we catch a glimpse of The Omelite, gold-tinted expert programmers who manage finance and IT on planet Alpha, and the brainy Azin Mö, these sticky lil’ neuroscientists working as the official medical practitioners aboard the overgrown space capsule. Though, I’d say that the Doghan Daguis — a trio of winged, snouted multilingual brokers — stand as the most memorable, these dubious dwarfish dealers hauling our female Sergeant out of a tough spot — for a price, of course. And lastly, patrons are also treated to a number of inspired cameos; Ethan Hawke, Gattaca (1997), pops up to play Jolly the Pimp — ingenious casting — while Australia’s Elizabeth Debicki, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), voices The Pearl Prince, Emperor Haban-Limaï, mo-capped by Aymeline Valade. And oh, keep your eyes peeled for director Louis Leterrier, Clash of the Titans (2010), who shows up as a welcoming Captain during the movie’s intro sequence.
Said to be the most expensive European and independent film ever financed (budgeted somewhere between $177–209 million USD), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an all-out assault on the senses, Besson’s deep space wonderland a splendorous sight to behold — think a marriage between the best of Star Wars and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Bursting with mind-melting creativity (and a kaleidoscope of day-glo colors), Valerian showcases an array of beautifully rendered, richly imagined intergalactic worlds, each populated by an assortment of strange and seductive alien creatures, designed by a host of talented artists. In addition, the flamboyantly futuristic garments by costume designer Olivier Bériot, Lucy (2014) — reminiscent of those androgynous outfits from Besson’s The Fifth Element — and detailed production design by Hugues Tissandier, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), further enhance the (intentionally) kitsch aesthetic; these lads just two of the many behind-the-scene wizards responsible for bringing this incredible vision to life in such a unique and vivid manner.
A true visual smorgasbord, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — despite its few flaws — deserves to be seen on the big screen (I’d say go IMAX 3D), even though the film itself may be too esoteric for the average moviegoer — I do feel, however, that, having a penchant for all things uncanny and unusual, I’m one of the few souls for whom this film is actually intended. Destined to become a cult classic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a rip-roaring cosmic adventure for the ages, Besson’s space odyssey unlike anything else you’ll see this year. As a pure cinematic experience, this one comes beyond compare!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner