Overview: Two government special ops agents are tasked with saving an intergalactic space station that serves as a home for species from all over the universe; STX Entertainment; 2017; PG-13; 137 Minutes.
Love on the Brain: We know that this movie is going to end with the guy finally getting the kiss from the girl and, along the way, every countdown is going to stop on the last available second. We know this not just because Director Luc Besson already employed both basic plot devices in his 1997 film The Fifth Element, somehow both a divisive cult classic and a milestone sci-fi watermark, which now, at least visually, is framed as a confident warm-up for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson’s newest passion project and the most expensive indie movie in the history of film (with a budget of 180 million). The real reason we can predict these scenarios in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it’s easy to tell early on that Besson’s film is one intent on not getting in the way of its own inventiveness with such a petty thing as nuanced storytelling. Valerian is a film that plays out the way that a breathless eight year old might string together an improvised fantasy with a run-on sentence tied over and over with “And then…” (“And then they have to steal a jellyfish off the back of a giant dinosaur and then they have to put their head up the jellyfish’s butt and then their memory gets eaten…”).
I’m not saying that it’s to the film’s credit that its two leads, Dane Dahaan’s Valerian and Cara Delivingne’s Lauraline, register as more charmless with each step toward embraced affection or that it’s a compliment that a lot of the dialogue feels like placeholder inserted into a script and never replaced by better writing and there isn’t a single drop of suspense to be found in any of the standard action set setups. These things are still missteps, but when the ambition of the film is pointed in an entirely different direction (say, beyond the sky), these are missteps that land more as distractions than flaws.
Diamonds: Besson’s film will open this weekend in competition with Dunkirk, the newest from a filmmaker who has long been celebrated and lauded for his meticulous and clinical plotting and story devices so strenuously conceived that they require a major portion of his scripts be devoted to exposition. In a way, Valerian is the opposite of that: a film which accepts and unleashes unfancied elements of basic narrative as the stage and host to an awe-inspiring visual carnival which hides another story within itself. That isn’t to say one is better than the other, just that this weekend’s openings showcase a broad spectrum of ways in which blockbuster movies can be good and powerful and entertaining. If Nolan is academically surgical, then Besson is a mad scientist making mind-blowing discoveries with his experiments on the body.
There are cautiously offered comparisons of Lucas’ original Star Wars film to be made here, both in that Valerian is a visual spectacle of imagination unbounded by restriction and in the creative certainty exhibited by the many species imagined by Besson. At times, the world-building reaches critical mass; the market sequence, for example, gets to be a bit of an eyesore before it’s saved by a rather ingenious cross-dimensional action sequence. But mostly, the boldness of it all is a refreshing break within a contemporary blockbuster moment which is now straining the restrictive fences of existing nostalgia and re-re-rehashed comic properties. And it’s in these fearless leaps where the film makes up for the rigidity of its performers. If Dehaan and Delivingne sometimes miss their comedic beats, the curiousness and alien behavior of the bit players more than make up for the lack of humor. Extraterrestrial ducks swindling whoever they can with their chorus line of information, a drunk submarine fisherman, and a brutish alien urging Lauraline to try on a series of dresses with innocent hopefulness all make for laugh-out-loud humor outside of the main characters’ dialogue.
Take A Bow: But ultimately, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is way more than just chuckle-worthy spectacle. Between the sophomoric surface story and the futuristic cinematic theater, established by the comprehensive society built from Besson’s freshly invented and mingling alien species, there exists an unsubtle but surprisingly mature and progressive essay on multi-culturalism. This thematic element, by the way, is presented in microcosm by a dance sequence from a shape-shifting alien named Bubbles (music superstar Rihanna) in a scene that is an absolute showstopper destined to be celebrated for a long, long time. And any pause that might be given by the film’s casting of two white heroes and a white villain to make a statement on multi-culturalism will be remedied by the film’s forcing the white leads to answer for a nationalistic genocide and revisionist history in the film’s climax.
Overall: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets overcomes its wooden players and stiff script to build a much better story out of its astonishing visuals and uninhibited world creating.