Luc Besson goes for broke – possibly literally- with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an extravagantly loopy sci-fi fantasy that cost $180 million dollars and may just bankrupt his Paris-based EuropaCorp film studio. The reviews haven’t been stellar and nor has the movie’s US box-office take.
Yet it will be a colossal shame if Besson’s movie doesn’t find a receptive audience. It’s bursting with the knockabout action, visual dazzle and bonkers plotting that turned his 1995 sci-fi adventure The Fifth Element adventure into a worldwide hit and an enduring cult favourite. That film took its inspiration from the long-running comic-book series Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, which first enchanted Besson as a 10-year-old boy in the late-1960s. (‘I fell in love with Laureline and I wanted to be Valérian,’ he recalls.)
Now he’s gone back to the source, CGI effects having caught up with his exorbitant imagination in the interim. And those effects certainly look fantastic. Besson establishes the teeming richness of his fantasy world in the opening sequence. Set to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, it’s a witty montage of greetings that chronicle the evolution of the film’s eponymous space-station city through a series of handshakes, starting with the historic encounter between Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford and Soyuz cosmonaut Alexey Leonov in 1975, and unfolding over the succeeding eight centuries as ever more racially diverse human-human meetings give way to increasingly bizarre human-alien interactions.
By the time we’ve reached the 28th Century, the Alpha space station has become home to millions of creatures from hundreds of different planets. All of them abundantly strange. The story’s human protagonists, however, are types we’ve seen before. Dane DeHaan’s space agent Valerian is a cocky wisecracking hero in the Han Solo mould. And Cara Delevingne’s feisty Laureline a chip off the Princess Leia block. The snarky banter Besson gives them is hardly original, either. Their bickering byplay might possibly work as speech bubbles but probably won’t hold your attention for long on screen.
Fortunately, the film’s alien characters are far more arresting, from the tall, porcelain-pale, Giacometti-skinny, androgynous-looking race known as The Pearl, who inhabit an idyllic but doomed blue planet, to the trio of strange creatures – part-platypus, part-bat, part Dobby the House Elf – who act as bespoke information brokers on Alpha.
The plot that links Valerian and Laureline to these figures and countless others is incredibly convoluted. But it doesn’t matter. Besson gives the movie a giddy momentum that propels its hero and heroine through their episodic adventures. Besides, Besson’s world building is so prodigal that there is always something flamboyantly entertaining to observe, whether it is the spectacle of a bristling, souk-like desert market that can only be experienced via virtual glasses and gloves, or the sight of Rihanna as a shape-shifting entertainer who morphs seamlessly from Liza Minnelli lookalike to latex-clad nurse to pigtailed schoolgirl to saucy French maid and more in the course of a lurid pole dance.
Could the story do without her? Probably. The same goes for many of the film’s most curious details. But to be honest I’d rather have them than narrative slickness. And I’d certainly trade half a dozen precision-tooled sequels and spin-offs in the ever-expanding Marvel or DC universes for Besson’s idiosyncratic creation. Sadly, given the realities of today’s cinema, half a dozen Marvel or DC sequels and spin-offs is what we’re most likely to get.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 137 mins. Director Luc Besson