Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ Is Like ‘Star Wars’ on Crystal Meth, and It’s Almost Crazy Enough to Work
Luc Besson returns with a space oddity so high on its own supply that it makes “Guardians of the Galaxy” look like an Ozu film.
Imagine if someone projected an entire decade’s worth of sci-fi space epics on the same screen, at the same time. Imagine you were in the audience for that event. Now imagine, for some insane reason, you decided to pre-game for the experience by eating an entire bag full of mushrooms that had been garnished with a fine layer of France’s best crystal meth. That, more or less, is what it feels like to watch Luc Besson’s delirious “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” an independently financed $200 million intergalactic adventure so high on its own supply that it makes makes “Guardians of the Galaxy” look like an Ozu film (and not even one of those later Ozu films that he jazzed up with color).
This is a movie with the density of a dying star, a movie that offers more things to see in every frame than you can find in some entire franchises. It’s a movie that features Herbie Hancock as a deep space defense minister, Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien stripper named Bubble, and Ethan Hawke as a guy named “Jolly the Pimp,” and it’s a movie so full of stuff that those three characters barely manage to stand out. Like everything else here, they are dissolved into the marrow of Besson’s delirious, hyper-active nonsense, congealing into a spectacle that feels like a necessary corrective to the sterility of modern blockbusters until it runs out of gas (or whatever the hell they use for fuel in the 28th Century) and gets sucked into a black hole of its own making, never to be heard from or thought of again.
Based on the Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ graphic novel series “Valérian and Laureline,” Besson’s latest brain-scrambler is exactly the movie you’d think might result from giving the director of “Lucy” the GDP of a small country and sending him into the stratosphere with complete creative control. In fact, it’s so unapologetically idiosyncratic that its hackneyed opening cue — David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing over the image of two spaceships docking in orbit — almost feels like a cheeky joke at the expense of our expectations. “This is the tedious, overly familiar shit you’ve seen a zillion times; now buckle up so we can warp into the future.”
And so we do, Besson’s ingeniously succinct prologue carrying us across the centuries with a montage of people meeting amongst the stars and shaking hands (or shaking tentacles, as becomes the case once alien civilizations enter the mix). It’s the perfect introduction to a story that’s preoccupied with the collision between worlds, the film eventually settling down on the near-infinite metropolis of Alpha, a base that is home to more than 8,000 separate species of intelligent life (who, I suppose, have come from 1,000 planets).
But the movie peaks before we even get there, Besson introducing his immensely bland leads and then immediately hurling them into one of the most inventive action sequences you’ll ever see. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is a government space agent of some kind who acts like Han Solo and dresses like Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (hang onto those Hawaiian shirts, apparently they’re gonna come back in style in 700 years). He’s a scrawny cartoon of masculinity, devoid of any personality save for his desire to shoot things and screw girls — one girl in particular. Her name is Laureline (Cara Delevingne), she’s Valerian’s partner, and while it’s clear that she’s the dominant member of the team, the banter between these two characters is so astonishingly tin-eared that it’s genuinely hard to tell how she feels about floating in space with a walking, talking, sallow-faced boner. Valerian asks her to marry him right off the hop, but it’s never the least bit clear how seriously we should take that proposal; do they love each other, or is it just that they’re two of the last humans in the universe? Why do they always feel like children?
It doesn’t matter, the movie is off to the races before you can come to grips with how little you care about anything that’s happening in it. Valerian receives a psychic transmission from a dying alien world and then the next thing you know he and Laureline are dropping in on a desert planet in order to steal a living MacGuffin from an inter-dimensional duty-free market that seems ripped from Guillermo del Toro’s fever dreams (this is the rare case where the 3D actually helps you make sense of space). The chase sequence that follows — a parade of paperback wonders that includes a floating school bus, alien body-hacking, and a narrow escape for the ages — moves between its glories with Spielbergian grace. The first 25 minutes of this movie should be mounted as an installation at the Louvre and played on an infinite loop. Only then can our planet know peace.
The wheels don’t totally come off the wagon once Valerian and Laureline arrive on Alpha, but there’s never much reason to care about what the investigation our heroes have come to pursue. We’re told that the massive space melting pot is rotting from the inside out — that a nefarious void is growing from the starship’s core like a tumor — but Besson’s script never allows for much mystery as to what might be lurking in the depths. Once we meet the openly nefarious Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen, in a thankless role), it’s clear that “Valerian and the Goblet of Fire” or whatever is itself suffering from a void at its core.
Alpha is a miraculous place, a Wonderland in orbit, but this incredible world is desperately in search of a story worth its sights. Besson’s film is mesmerizing as long as Valerian and Laureline keep digging towards the center, diving through massive computer circuits and stealing parasites off the backs of giant alien scallops in their quest towards the big nothing at the end of the tunnel, but the vividness of this place only underscores the lifelessness of the people leading us through it.
Occasionally, the movie’s focus aligns with its virtues, and Besson has reason to slow down and focus on Alpha’s diverse population. Not since “Avatar” has a movie been so in love with its own creations. From the trio of duckbilled data savants to the hammer-headed fishermen who try to feed Laureline to their king, “Valerian” is at its best when it feels like a “Star Wars” spinoff about all the fantastical creatures who bleep-blorp through the background; it’s like a reservoir for all of the creativity that Disney is trying to eliminate from a galaxy far, far away.
The film’s most fun aside — the one involving Rihanna as Bubble, the most guileless sex slave in the entire galaxy — epitomizes Besson’s singular gift for threading the needle between spectacle and stupidity. For 15 glorious minutes, you’re watching exactly the movie that he wanted to make. Like the Fhloston Paradise sequence from “The Fifth Element,” it’s a self-contained episode in which cartoon beauty collides with real pathos. And then it ends and we’re forced back to Valerian and Laureline, forced to remember that “The Fifth Element” is such an enduring delight because Ruby Rhod and the Diva Plavalaguna don’t feel like a reprieve from its heroes.
If only Bubble could have been the lead character (hell, with her abilities, she could have been all the characters). How fitting that would have been for a movie about a sci-fi world where humans are just one species in a sea of many. “Valerian” imagines a multi-cultural future where diversity has assumed extraterrestrial dimensions, where life is so varied and fractured that entire species can be wiped away without anyone asking questions. Besson presents a future in which people are the least interesting things in the universe, and yet the world still revolves around us. A white dude is still pulling the strings of power. Equality is still hard because erasure is still easier. There are 394 million stories on the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian’s might be the only one we’ve seen before. Still, any excuse to visit this place is one worth taking.