Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is not necessarily the best movie of the year thus far, but it might just be my favorite. From director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy), the film is a conspiracy thriller set in an imaginative wonderland. Bursting with color, fun ideas, and delightful design elements, the best parts of Valerian are like a theme park ride. While it starts to run out of steam in the final third, the rest of the film is so enchanting that it was difficult to feel overly concerned about it.
The film is adapted from a French comic series known as Valérian and Laureline, written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The first volume was published in 1967, its two central characters are agents of Earth’s galactic empire having adventures and missions across space and time. Along with The Hidden Fortress and Buck Rogers, Valérian and Laureline may have had a huge influence on Star Wars as well. While the comic itself features cartoonish looking characters acting against incredibly realistic environments, Besson takes the inverse approach when moving them to cinema. While our Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are played by human actors, so much of this film takes place in fantastical locales.
The effect of these designs is that Valerian feels more immersive than any spectacle-driven science fiction film of the past few years. There is so much to look at and experience within the film which just wouldn’t have been possible in earlier filmmaking eras. Yes, there is a digital sheen over everything, but Besson and his designers embrace that as an aesthetic choice. Everything here looks like a cartoon come to life, and is the first film since the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer to fully embrace the unreal possibilities of digital worlds.
The story of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is simple enough. After a gorgeous prologue and some awkward relationship establishment, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with retrieving a creature which is the last of its species in the universe. They do so by pulling a heist at a gigantic marketplace which exists in another dimension that is normally invisible and intangible to humans. It looks like empty desert, but there are a million vendors if you have the right goggles. This sequence is one of the best in the film, and does a lot to establish the characters and just one of the wonderful ideas realized by the film. Of course things get complicated—as they always do when Besson treats us to an action sequence—but they don’t get any simpler when they return to Alpha, a human-founded space station that has since become a free-floating collective of many species.
From here, the conspiracy thriller part of the plot comes to the fore, but this simple investigation is often interrupted by unexpected obstacles. The best of which is Bubble (Rihanna), a scene-stealing shapeshifting burlesque dancer in the employ of Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke). Bubble yearns to be a true artist despite her employment only allowing for a limited repertoire, her aid to Valerian is both vital and freeing. She is the heart of this movie, a weird being not trying to be more human, but rather trying to share her form of expression with the universe as an act of love. Rhianna gives a great performance, stealing every scene she’s in and providing the kind of performance that will make her an excellent addition to any film.
Many viewing experiences of Valerian will be made or broken on the performances of the leads. Dane DeHaan is certainly an unusual choice for a lead hero, even knowing that the source material largely parodies the “cowboy” hero archetype so common in American comic books. DeHaan’s performance is serious and quiet, reserved in his sense of mission and duty. His performance isn’t very energetic, but there is a playfulness to it regardless. It feels like Besson is, once again, having fun at the expense of stereotypical masculinity and it works even if it occasionally feels like DeHaan’s lines were written with 1991 Bruce Willis in mind.
By contrast, Cara Delevingne has some spark, even if it is mostly conveyed through her eyes and eyebrows. She is the more mischievous and outright badass of the duo. While Valerian is a hero that excels at finding trouble, she is always managing to find her way out. Sadly, the film does place her as a distressed damsel in one sequence, though she is never portrayed as helpless. For most of the film she is the most fun character to watch, constantly rebuking Valerian and any authority figures with a smirk and intense stare. Finally seeing Delevingne have a lot of screentime in a film proves she can have quite the presence, and I’m curious to see what she does next.
The dialogue will only make some of the performances seem worse to those who aren’t on the film’s wavelength. It is the same sort of exposition and reaction heavy dialogue that is pervasive in this genre, and like John Carter and Jupiter Ascending, it is almost exclusively delivered in a deadpan manner. It can make it hard to seem lively, and the attempts at humor or romance hit as often as they miss, which will certainly turn off some. However, the sheer amount of worldbuilding and engaging visuals more than make up for these faults in terms of viewing experience. This is the sort of movie that can wash over you, and truly provide escape from our world for a few hours.
The biggest issue that Valerian suffers is that is loses some of its momentum by the time it reaches the finale. Up through that point, the intrigue, action, and visuals are used in wonderful combination and balance. The film as an episodic sort of structure to it, which holds back the story from reaching a full crescendo when our heroes finally catch up with the main plot. We finally catch up to some of the mysteries from the beginning of the film (nothing in the story itself is unpredictable), which means that for the first time in the film we see returning visuals. It’s not that the ending is bad, but it feels like a ‘wrap up’ rather than a true climax because getting there is way more interesting than the resolution.
It thrills me that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a movie that exists. In a world where there are so many summer films that are homogenized products that are boxed in by studios to appeal to the broadest audience, this feels like a breath of fresh air. This film is Luc Besson’s vision through and through from the visual style to the plot details. Valerian is a charming genre exercise not unlike Avatar, where stunning visuals are the true star of the show compared to the familiar story beats. But unlike Cameron’s Dances With Cat People, this Besson aims for uplifting adventure rather than self-serious eco-parable.
Even with just a single viewing so far, Valerian is a film that I’m already looking forward to revisiting over and over, a smile on my face as I escape into this world.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.