Cast: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna
Director: Luc Besson
Running time: 2 hour 17 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Imagine Jar Jar Binks directing a multi-million euro sci-fi extravaganza starring the Na'vi from James Cameron's Avatar while gorging on squiggly alien banquet food, and you may have some idea of what's going on in Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This is one of those loopy space operas in which it's clear from the outset that character depth and narrative coherency is besides the point, and that Besson's larger aim is to distill the kind of 1960/70s serial adventures he grew up on. While many will claim his latest madcap creation rips off Star Wars and its ilk, the truth is George Lucas actually cribbed heavily from Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin's graphic novel Valerian et Laureline, which began in 1967.
The story, such as it is, involves Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge), two 28th-century cops who leap from one dimension to the next as dictated by Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), who resides inside a massive spaceship. After waking from a nightmare in which he envisions the destruction of a gorgeous planet inhabited by Na'vi-esque beings, Valerian jumps into action in order to retrieve a strange animal known as a "converter" from the black market. Of course, DeHaan's wannabe outlaw constantly tries to woo the snarky Laureline, who rebuffs his rather sudden marriage proposal even as she smiles coyly while walking away. The bulk of their relationship is supposed to play as cute banter en route to the inevitable "love conquers all" finale, but Besson's unwillingness, or perhaps naïveté, in understanding what kind of movie he's making actually makes the results weirdly charming. Truthfully, the way Valerian's creepy womanizer is meant to be dashing is indicative of old-fashioned male heroes, ala Han Solo or Chris Pratt's Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy. Should this archetype still be kicking in 2017? Of course not, but no one has bothered to tell Besson, and certainly DeHaan purposefully refuses to sell anything close to sex appeal. His chemistry with Delevinge is nonexistent; even as she struts, winks, and generally seems like she gets what type of film she's making.
This is all to say that while the character dynamics and overall plotting seems to have been written by a 10-year-old, the sense of visual imagination and drunken "everything plus the kitchen sink" approach to blockbuster filmmaking is something rarely seen on this scale. For better or worse (and many will say worse), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an unrelenting burst of CGI splatter art; with ships, creatures, planets, and sci-fi psychedlia whizzing throughout every corner of the frame. The tone is antic; at times playing like a warped version of a space opera Looney Tunes cartoon as it zips along a series of inter-dimensional chases, outer space dog fights, and near-misses which epitomizes Besson's colorfully juvenile aesthetic. Characters speak in wooden hushed tones or deliver ear-scraping one-liners as cutesy CGI aliens blather on about primitive humanoids. There's an alien banquet in which Laureline wears an extravagant plate-shaped hat, an underwater excursion involving a crusty old captain and gigantic dinosaurs, and a gooey blue shapeshifter (played by Rhianna) who at one point inexplicably does some flexible pole-dancing. All the while, Besson peppers political symbolism into his screenplay, even as whatever supposed real-world parallels are completely eradicated by the sight of Ethan Hawke mugging as a nose ring-wearing pimp.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is uncool sci-fi during a moment where geek culture has collided with mainstream tastes in a way which feels counterintuitive. Unlike the sleek action-packed accessibility of the recent Star Trek films or the ironic hipness of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, Besson's embrace of kitsch, camp, and goofiness feels like a purer manifestation of the genre which at one time was the bane of dorky teenagers everywhere. If anything, this overstuffed, visually audacious 137-minute slice of pop junk cinema will have those long-dormant Jar Jar fans crawling out from under their dusty Naboo hiding places.