“History is on the march.”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a visual spectacle in the most absolute sense. Filled and enthused with more imagination, innovation, goofiness and bewilderment than it can ultimately handle, even within its 137-minute running time, writer/director Luc Besson’s highly expensive, incredibly audacious passion project adaptation of Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mezieres’ late ’60s graphic novel series Valerian and Laureline is a messy, overpacked, over-the-top profligacy that’s simply too bold, too passionate, too spellbinding and too downright berserk to outright dismiss. Overly busy and frantically energetic though it might be, Besson’s latest science fantasy blockbuster extravagance is a wild, very weird and sometimes quite wonderful cinematic experience, one that’s hard to love wholeheartedly but impossible to forget. Your space mileage might vary, but I had a blast. There’s a good chance you will too.
It’s a fool’s errand to try explaining Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in sensical terms. Of course, I’m nothing if not foolish. Like the source material that inspired it, Besson’s newest film follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne), a romantic pair of space (and time) traveling government agents who travel the galaxy fighting villainous aliens and other interdimensional beings in the name of intergalactic honor and justice. Sorta. Think Star Wars meets Star Trek meets Men in Black meets Blade Runner meets Indiana Jones meets Avatar meets The Fifth Element meets Guardians of the Galaxy meets Flash Gordon. And that’s barely describing it. When Valerian receives a distressing telepathic signal from a dying breed of peaceful aliens, Valerian and Laureline travel to Alpha, an expansive space-based metropolis that houses a thousand different planets. Geez, it could’ve used more planets, amirite? From there, these two lovebird operatives must track down the source of this distress call and, of course, save the known universe in the process. Never a dull day’s work when you’re young, hard-working semi-reckless ass-kicking galactic geniuses on a mission.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, among other reasons, noteworthy for being the most pricey independent feature film ever made. With a production budget of $180 million, Besson’s latest film is undoubtedly the veteran French filmmaker’s most courageous and costly commercial directorial effort. It’s almost certain to fail in the U.S. (how it’ll fare around the world is anyone’s guess), but it’s simply a miracle that it was made at all. Valerian is exactly the sort of risky, semi-original endeavor we should clamor for from our franchise-burdened Hollywood producers. This European mega-production is a whizzy, wacky, kooky and even fairly kinky cinematic playhouse of fantastical (out-of-this) world building, mad-cap hyperactive vibrancy and general lunacy. Even if you don’t enjoy the ride, you have to applaud Besson for getting it off the ground and into the far recesses of outer space in the first place.
For all its frustrating inconsistencies, occasionally very stilted dialogue and sometimes sheer stupidity (and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way — at least, not completely), it’s a complete and utter joy to see this creative filmmaker filled with more ebullience and crazed creativity than ever before. Even for someone of Besson’s fame and stature, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a trip beyond even his own previous capacities and capabilities. It’s easily among the biggest, boldest, bravest attempts in genre filmmaking in ages. Even when it fails, you can’t help but marvel at its pure, inspired magnificence.
If you happen to do recreational drugs, you might’ve found your latest habitual viewing. If you simply like to feed and delight your eyeballs with sublime sights, often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is here to please. That said, there’s no doubt that Besson is far more entertained and mentally preoccupied with how the film should look instead of its overarching narrative. It’s a vision first and a piece of storytelling second, but what a vision it turns out to be. And that shouldn’t discredit how — all things considered — Valerian is 75% more coherent than you’d ever expect.
From the amazing special effects to the simply astounding art direction and impeccable set designs, Valerian is a splendid moviegoing experience in the visual department. No doubt. If only Besson had paid more attention to the casting of his two main leads. While DeHaan has proven himself several times prior by now and Delevigne has an intriguing screen presence that’s hard to dismiss, neither are right for their individual parts, respectively. DeHaan is too awkward and insular to play the suave handsome rogue that the script calls for from its titular character. Similarly, Delevigne holds her own a little better since she can easily channel Laureline’s feisty fierceness, but she holds no water during the more intimate, emotional moments. Their smoldering chemistry is similarly non-existent, which happens to be a huge problem. For as much as Besson can tickle your pupils and excite your inner child with his absorbing visuals, he can’t quite channel the dazzling heights of his cinematic influences without two rich, well-cast performances from his committed leads. It’s a glaring oversight in a film filled with too many problems.
And yet, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets delights and astounds. In a way, DeHaan and Delevigne’s miscasting simply adds to the film’s all-around weirdness — and that general absurdity from all corners of this unconventional bloated blockbuster is what truly makes it soar. It’s not simply that Valerian is beautiful and odd. It’s both, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s puzzling and addictively maddening, so much so that it’s truly a captivating, compulsively enjoyable space adventure that absolutely demands you see it on the biggest screen possible. You might not like it. You might not even see its critical or commercial merits. Yet, for better or worse, it’s impossible not to be wowed by it all. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is brazen and utterly batshit. It’s all the better that way too.