Coming into this summer movie season, one of the films I was most excited to see was this one: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Written, produced and directed by Luc Besson. Regular readers of this blog know how much I love me some Luc Besson. There’s no one else like him. He’s known particularly for two kinds of films; really dumb action movies (like Taken), and equally stupid sci-fi (like Lucy). The Fifth Element is his; one of the most over-the-top, insane, incomprehensible, over-designed, thoroughly entertaining sci-fi epics ever made. Valerian promised to match it.
Boy, did it ever. Essentially, the City of a Thousand Planets refers to this massive, planet-sized space station, where representatives from every inhabited world in the galaxy/universe/multiverse gather for purposes both commercial and diplomatic. They call the place Alpha. That’s where the movie is set, on Alpha, combination Mall-of-the-Galaxy, entertainment complex, and UN. It’s an exceptionally cool place to set a film in. Imagine the bar scene in Star Wars, multiply it by a million, and give the filmmaker state-of-the-art CGI and an endless design budget, and you have the look of this movie. It’s absolutely dazzling. Incredibly silly. It features all these chase scenes where Valerian (Dane DeHaan) zips rapidly through dozens of world venues, and you realize the filmmakers spent immense amounts of time creating fascinating worlds that would get maybe two seconds of screen time; spectacular backgrounds for the actors to basically zip through. It’s just astounding. It even has a scene where Valerian gets stuck with his arm in a different dimension than the rest of him. Don’t you just hate when that happens?
It has to be that visually sumptuous, because the plot doesn’t really hold our interest. The movie starts on sort of a beach planet, where shaved-head gorgeous skinny aliens enjoy the most leisurely of life styles. They have a pet critter, which sort of looks like a cross between an armadillo, a mole and an iguana, which has this neat trick. If you feed it something, a pearl, say, it poops out tons of them, perfect replicas. So the skinny beach bum aliens have all these pearls, each one releasing massive amounts of energy, and when they need more, they get their pet to poop them some.
Then, some kind of war wipes out their planet and their civilization.
Jumping ahead 30 years, and Major Valerian and his sidekick, Sergeant Laureline (Cara DeLevingne), are part of the security forces for Alpha. Oh, and he’s in love with her, and wants her to marry him, an idea with which she is unimpressed. So there’s that romantic intrigue underlying the whole story, infusing their every scene with immense amounts of sexual tension, theoretically. In practice, DeHaan and DeLevingne have as little chemistry as they have charisma, so interpersonally, the Valerian/Laureline pairing’s a bit of a fizzle.
Anyway. Earth, for some reason, provides security for Alpha, and V and L are the main agents of that security, and for some reason, they’ve come across one of those pearl-pooping critters. And Laureline even knows details of how to feed and care for it. (Bathing it in massive amounts of radiation, apparently). And they’re tasked with getting the critter to someone, with some baddies trying to stop them. That’s the plot, I think. I don’t remember who wants it, or why. Oky, I may have missed some narrative nuances. The movie’s pace is frenetic, and the images are distracting. I’ll admit it, I spent a lot of the movie wondering what the heck was going on. This did not detract from my enjoyment of it. It’s a Luc Besson film. They’re not supposed to make sense.
Anyway. For some reason, Valerian and Laureline keep getting separated. Once, for example, Laureline finds herself working as one of many waiters, providing food for a vicious tyrant lizard creature. The waiters line up, and one at a time they approach this Lord-thing, tray of food on their heads, and he takes a bite, then spits it out, snarling at them. Laureline shows up, wearing, for some reason, a wedding dress and a big hat, and the Lord-creature assumes that he’s to cut off the top of her skull and scoop out her brains, the first food-offering that appeals to him. She resists, fights back, and mayhem results.
Valerian also gets lost, and for some reason, finds himself in the nightclub of Jolly The Pimp (Ethan Hawke), who manages Bubble, the world/galaxy/universe’s greatest stripper. Bubble is played by Rihanna, and she’s a shape shifter, and does this entire pole dance routine as a series of stripper icons (cowgirl, school girl, dominatrix etc). Rihanna is completely brilliant in the role, and although her scenes make no narrative sense at all, she’s the best thing in the picture, for the fifteen minutes or so before (SPOILER ALERT) her character tragically dies.
Eventually, it turns out that the beach bum planet people didn’t all die. Some of them have been hiding on Alpha. And they want their pearl-pooper back, which Valerian initially resists, because, regulations. Which Laureline persuades him to ignore. And so the aliens zip off to settle another beach-y planet they’ve found. And the film’s bad guy, Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who has been tracking and trying to kill Valerian all the while for some unaccountable reason, is defeated and arrested, a foreordained result, again, completely devoid any dramatic tension at all. It’s a Luc Besson film, so of course there’s also a big Family Values speech, after which Laureline decides to marry Valerian after all, obviously. I mean, of course she does, though DeLevingne’s acting of her big moment couldn’t have been more perfunctory.
Is the movie any good at all? Of course not. It’s a Luc Besson film; of course it’s idiotic. But it looks great, and, like all the man’s oeuvre, it’s a fun kind of dumb. The two leads are very attractive plus they can’t either of them act at all, but they pull off their stunts well enough, and are surrounded by other actors who can act, and so the movie limps along without much in the way of character development or humanity. It’s such a great looking film, it races along appealingly, and the people I saw it with expressed themselves perfectly satisfied by it.
It’s everything I was hoping for. It’s a Luc Besson sci-fi epic. It’s visually amazing. It won’t bore you. It also has a message. It takes a strong, resolute stance against genocide. And it has a lizard that poops pearls. I’m not sure what more you want from a movie.