Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke
Director: Luc Besson
Running Time: 137 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for Lasers, Gunplay, and the Accompanying Alien Splatter
Release Date: July 21, 2017
My quick pitch for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is “Star Wars but more European and colorful.” Now, don’t take that mean it is overly derivative. Most great modern stories are just variations on the classics, space fantasies especially so, Star Wars more than any other. Even if a movie finds inspiration from the tales of the Jedi, there is a genuinely strong chance it has a fair degree of originality. Valerian’s source material predates Star Wars, as it is based on the long-running French comic series Valérian et Laureline, which was first published in 1967 and, in the vein of John Carter, was by all accounts an influence on George Lucas. I cannot speak to how closely the film hews to the original, but I can say without hesitation that the result is the delightfully unfiltered vision of Luc Besson.
After I first watched the trailer for Valerian, my take on its prospects for success was that while it looked spectacularly unique, there was no way it could be a box office hit. It would be too lavish, too weird, too alien. But here’s the thing: that’s a bunch of baloney. If people who like movies want to be entertained, they need to go see Valerian. It is such a crowd-pleaser. Yes, it is a little more out-there than your average blockbuster, but it is not as impenetrable as something like Jupiter Ascending. The plot is straightforward and weighty enough to be neither confusing nor laughable, and if folks cannot appreciate the beautiful production design, fleet-on-its-feet action, and overall good vibes, then I don’t know what’s what.
The opening montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” could be overly on the nose but is instead an ode to the human (or human/alien/all sentient beings) spirit. Over the course of decades on a satellite orbiting Earth, a trio of astronauts keeps welcoming a new trio of astronauts from all corners of the globe. After a century or so, the new entrants start to become extraterrestrial. Eventually, the station becomes so popular that it must break away from Earth’s gravitational pull and become an intergalactic hub: Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets. The international/interplanetary cooperation is inspiring. This is not quite a utopia, but the effort of all involved to make it as close to one as possible is palpable.
The central conflict is a classic of the genre: an entire planet has been wiped out, and its surviving residents seek a new home. A device exists with enough energy to create a facsimile version, but its power makes it life-threateningly dangerous, and it may very well be in the wrong hands, so government operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are on the case. Often in this type of story, the destruction or conquest of another planet would be at stake, but the displaced here are a profoundly peaceful collective; in keeping with the utopian spirit, their goal fits this future’s high ideals.
There is a love story between the two leads that could have easily felt shoehorned in, but instead it is part and parcel of getting Besson’s message across. Despite a long list of past conquests, Valerian proposes to Laureline within the first ten minutes, desiring to prove that he is noble enough to turn their professional partnership into a life one. Their flirtation is playfully teasing, though their chemistry is never quite steaming. Still, their loyalty to each other ultimately demonstrates a high-minded connection of the variety that has united the peoples of Alpha.
In their travels to restore the balance of the universe, Valerian and Laureline come across a number of instantly lovable characters, both CGI and humans playing dress-up (or in some cases, both). There is an implied foundation of tolerance insofar as every interaction feels so lived-in and in how every outfit plus every style of skin (or whatever the alien equivalent of skin is) is matter-of-factly accepted. Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, and Ethan Hawke each play some degree of against type, but the biggest delight is Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien dancer named Bubble who aids Valerian and Laureline in a crucial escape mission. For those who have been waiting for the Barbadian singer to have an iconic cinematic moment, your time has come. She is the best part of the film, with her malleable nature fully inhabiting the theme that you can be and do whatever you want as long as you are fighting for what is right.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is Recommended If You Like: Star Wars, The Fifth Element, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Art and Vocation of Filmmaking
Grade: 4 out of 5 Handshakes