With the average American taking just six trips to the movies a year, it’s a rare occasion general audiences see more than one film any given opening weekend. That’s really a shame this weekend considering the hype surrounding not just Christopher Nolan’s war masterpiece Dunkirk but how you should see it which leaves another auteur’s work in the cold as an option to wait for Blu-ray.
There’s the option to see Dunkirk in digital IMAX, 70mm, digital projection, or Nolan’s preferred viewing in 70mm IMAX. The goal being: see it with as much detail as possible on the biggest screen possible.
If there’s ever a film that demands to be seen on the big screen, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that film as well- pure visual storytelling.
For all the pitfalls the screenplay holds with spotty dialogue, Valerian’s visual language holds the keys to Besson’s messaging. It goes beyond just gonzo visuals too. Inside all the insanity on screen, Besson stitches together what could be a silent film and possibly be all the better for it, stripping away awkward interactions between its leading couple with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne.
At the top of the list is a monolog in the finale from the latter that undermines the two hours before it, abandoning a visual story for a by-the-book explanation of why compassion and love are the keys to everything. It’s meant to convince the rather obtuse title character to follow both his heart (proving his love for Delevigne) and dreams (the inciting incident of the film). The scene is really devoid of any visual creativity, holding the camera in an extreme closeup of two talking heads.
It’s the antithesis of the rest of the film full of splendor informed by feelings and spectacle seen right away during the film’s cold open.
Opening with archival NASA footage, Besson immediately informs the audience this is an adventure, not just of two movie stars but of galactic proportions. We travel through a silent timeline over a couple hundred years as a montage of meetings between humans and aliens as they create the titular city together across generations. All that’s heard for the first four minutes is David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as Besson forms the foundation of his globalist message.
But Besson has hardly gotten started. Montages are Film 101. Besson’s style jumps into hyperdrive telling the story through an present tense lens, introducing this universe not unlike if Atonement’s beach tracking shot and Avatar had a baby. Like Nolan’s description of Dunkirk, it’s virtual reality without the headset. Still, hardly a word is spoken. There’s just a single word spoken before Valerian wakes up from his dream.
Seeing this on a smaller screen will almost assuredly take away from the immersive nature the story requires to help engage the audience. Once again, this is only the tip of the iceberg as Besson has yet to send the audience into the Mega Market or Valerian’s chase scene through the thousand planets’ home.
Be it Valerian jumping through hidden dimensions in the Mega Market or as he crashes through his city’s infrastructure to track down his dream, it’s told through floating camera as if the audience is calling the shots like in VR.
Of course, none of this would have the same impact if it was filmed as a sterile space epic. Every scene is bouncing wall-to-wall with vibrant color, providing some of the best eye candy of the year. It’s not just on the epic scale, either, intimate scenes like Rihanna’s chameleonic dance scene are true scene stealers (as an aside, Rihanna might have the best performance in the film). Besson might get the most attention with the set pieces but he really gets to flex his creative muscles in the smaller moments and wisely goes against the modern blockbuster grain, leaving out a destructive set piece from the finale.
It’s not without its flaws as a whole but the vision Besson holds is on magnificent display on a big screen projector. Avoid watching on your laptop at all costs.