Movie Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’
by Brett Yates
If there’s one thing that prospective viewers of Luc Besson’s new candy-painted space epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets should know before they buy a ticket, it’s that the 137-minute movie—by far the most expensive film production in French history, at a cost of $200 million—is almost totally incoherent. But they shouldn’t necessarily let that information dissuade them.
The story takes places in the 28th century when an international population of English-speaking humans and an array of alien species cohabit a space station grown so vast that it’s effectively become its own planet, hanging like a spiky geode amid the stars beyond Earth’s solar system. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a major and a sergeant, respectively, in the oddly intimate, freewheeling military of the monocultural government that somehow presides over this grand experiment in intergalactic diversity. They operate, however, more like raffish secret agents on their sub rosa missions of interdimensional mischief—whose dangers, for the flirtatious pair, only add an extra spark to their dance of noncommittal romance.
Early on, their commander (Clive Owen) sends them to a Tatooine-like planet to liberate a magical animal resembling an armadillo from a black-market dealer at the futuristic equivalent of a Moroccan souk. As it turns out, this exotic creature holds the key to survival for an all-but-extinct race of peace-loving, sexily androgynous primitives, and as Valerian and Laureline begin to unravel their Na’vi-esque tale of woe, they’re thrust into a ludicrous-speed adventure through neon-soaked urban jungles, subterranean cesspools, outer-space palaces, and state conspiracies. Its twists and turns are fully impenetrable. Don’t even try.
OK, it’s easy enough to tell moviegoers to turn off their brains and enjoy the sights and sounds that emerge from Besson’s European disco sensibility: the high-speed chases and narrow escapes, the Mediterranean-inspired beaches, the extraterrestrials of variously reptilian, piscine, simian, and robotic extraction. But the disorder of this universe creates certain unignorable problems: action set pieces revolve around time- and space-transcendent technologies whose functionality is never explained, and suspense is compromised in sequences where threats and objectives are equally ill-defined. It’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to be scared of or excited about.
There’s something muddled even in the character concepts: DeHaan is 31 years old, but he still sort of recalls an adolescent Edward Furlong, and an unshakeable tween quality—transmitted like a virus into the sci-fi genre itself, perhaps, by an unhealthy proliferation of YA novel adaptations—pervades Valerian and Laureline, and only the insouciant, unanswered proposal of marriage that Valerian slips into his vanilla banter soon after the characters’ introduction informs us that this is not an interstellar Spy Kids. Besson’s uncertainty as to whether his intended audience is the Divergent crowd or the fans of his recently re-released magnum opus The Fifth Element (1997), in which Bruce Willis’s neo-Bogartian hero provided an invaluably solid center in an otherwise equally bizarre world, creates a vagueness and a vacancy within his emotionally unpersuasive protagonists.
Fortunately, Delevingne, a supermodel occupying her first truly major film role with good humor and no visible trepidation, injects a fun, cocky flair that the screenplay lacks, and weird celebrity cameos are strategically sprinkled to supply boosts of energy: Herbie Hancock as a perpetual hologram that’s beamed in to scold our fun-loving heroes; Rutger Hauer as a head of state; the voice of John Goodman as an alien crime boss; the Chinese star Kris Wu as a blank-faced military captain who does basically nothing; and, best of all, Rihanna, in a charismatically maudlin hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold performance, as a shape-shifter who performs a theatrical PG-13 striptease under the supervision of her sleazy, cowboy-hatted pimp (Ethan Hawke!).
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets saw some pretty harsh reviews leading up to its unsuccessful U.S. release, with some reviewers seeming slightly hostile to the very idea of a foreign incursion into the summer box office. Critics may broadly condemn Hollywood for its noisy, empty-headed pandering, but they’re still instinctually, patriotically protective of its role as the premier purveyor of big-budget, high-tech entertainment, and on some level, they respect the focus-grouped pragmatism that underpins these enterprises. Besson’s wacky style is distinctly auteurist, and we’ve collectively decided that this approach belongs in the art house, not in the multiplex. That’s where we’re comfortable with it.
By now, Luc Besson has made enough critically disreputable movies that his 1980s reputation in Paris as an artistic innovator of the cinéma du look movement hardly gets mentioned. The sleek, commercial cinéma du look was less intellectual than the nouvelle vague of two decades prior, and its unconflicted indebtedness to Hollywood was a subject of consternation in France. But directors like Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix weren’t making Hollywood movies; they were asserting the artistic validity of Hollywood’s addiction to action and spectacle in a way that Hollywood—whose stunt shows and fantasy extravaganzas still paid a slowing form of respect to the traditional virtues of humanistic, morally purposeful storytelling—never had been willing to. Besson cared only about style, and he didn’t care who knew it.
The American blockbuster to which Valerian has been unfavorably compared, of course, has been James Cameron’s Avatar: inevitable, given that both stories hinge on the potentially tragic fate of an archaic race of nature-dwellers in a sci-fi realm where globalization has gone interplanetary, and some worldviews just aren’t compatible with the homogeneously capitalistic society that now dominates the galaxy. (In these anti-imperialist parables, the victims will always be styled after sympathetic Native American tribes; one day, however, it’ll become clear that the disposable people standing in the way of our supply of the oil-like natural resource in Avatar or getting caught in the crossfire of our unnecessary warfare in Valerian actually are Iraqis.)
But where Avatar, as a hybrid remake of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, remains piously tethered to its old-fashioned narrative, Valerian is totally comfortable veering off into kaleidoscopic nonsense, and at some point we find ourselves watching Cara Delevingne stick her head into the anus of a telepathic jellyfish. Valerian is allegedly based on a French comic book series, but it feels more like an 11-year-old boy’s internal reading of a comic book than the comic book itself. In a sense, this is what Besson has been aiming for all along: he’s been steadily melting his adult brain on movies to get back to childhood. James Cameron’s true interest, when he made Avatar, was not in cinema but in technology, and his movie looked more or less like a clunky video game—Turok: Dinosaur Hunter interspersed with moments from Wing Commander. Valerian, on the other hand, is the work of committed visual artist who has the mind of a fifth-grader.
Watch The Trailer for Valerian City of a Thousand Planets
Brett Yates is a writer in San Francisco, CA.