If there is one thing you know to the very marrow of your movie-loving bone walking into a Luc Besson film, it’s that it will be gorgeously, extravagantly, luxuriously and immersively imaginative.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets lives up to this justifiable expectation, delivering up a galaxy so wildly candy-colourful and expansive, so drenched in transportive landscapes, cultures and peoples that you almost forgot you are sitting in a cinema in the comparatively drab surrounds of planet earth.
In true Besson fashion, we are not gently taken into this far away galaxy – although there is, at the start, a very brief and entertaining “history” of humanity’s voyage into the stars and the creation of Alpha, a space station that becomes a spacefaring community to a legion of alien species – as we’re almost immediately plunged into a wordless but beautifully catastrophic recounting of the cataclysm that obliterated the planet Mül thirty years ago during a heated war between humanity and an unnamed race of aliens.
The loss of the planet, which it later emerges has been officially covered up by the federation of galactic species presided over by humanity, and with it almost all of the peaceful, nature-harmonious groups of aliens, is at the centre of a conspiracy that forms the central core of what is, admittedly, a fairly threadbare but nonetheless enjoyable narrative.
Of course, as is the way of slowly-uncovered conspiracies, no one at Alpha, least of all our protagonists Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne), who are engaged in an off-again, on-again romantic flirtation, suspect that these dark machinations are driving a real threat to the station’s very existence.
In fact, it’s only when Alpha’s Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), who is rather clumsily telegraphed as the Bad Guy from the word go, with a menacing sneer, black, imposing Cylon-esque robots at his personal back and call, and an unwillingness to answer any question directly, is kidnapped by Mül’s remaining people, now stateless rebels seeking redress, that the various pieces of a jigsaw come together to form a dark and menacing conspiracy.
Well, let’s just say, it’s meant to be a dark and menacing conspiracy; but as with so much of the plot, which is rife with tropes and cliches almost as abundant as Alpha’s multitudinously-diverse inhabitants, it amounts to little more than the Commander, for reasons which are made clear in a Bond villain-esque reveal, lying a whole lot to just about everyone, including his temporary replacement, General Okto Bar (Sam Spruell).
Filitt hides the presence of the Müllians with a furphy about a growing radioactive menace at Alpha’s core, a ruse that is quickly exposed as a lot of fabricated nothing when first Valerian, and then Laureline, venture into the area and are trapped there first trying to save themselves then the peaceful people of Mül who simply want their lost planet back.
As narratives go, it’s hardly wantonly substantial but as a driver for Besson’s uniquely lush and brilliantly visually-verbose storytelling, it fits the purpose and works as needed.
And for the most part, it’s giddly entertaining, allowing the talented French director to take us to a raft of amazing Alphan environments including the red light district of Pleasure Alley and the depths of the so-called radioactive core, and the multi-dimensional shopping mecca Big market on the planet Kyrian.
Even so, lushly-realised world-building can only cover so many narrative sins, and as the film progresses, some major flaws comes to the fore.
For a start, while the banter between Valerian and Laureline is amusing and pleasingly, mischieviously-staccato, it’s let down by almost zero chemistry between the two; they’re meant to be in love, the former fully so, the latter not so much at first, but there’s no sense that they’re even remotely a couple.
Further, while the movie is named after the male protagonist, unlike the French graphic novel series upon the film is based (Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières), both characters are instrumental to the narrative’s momentum, and it seems odd for Besson to neglect one-half of the protagonist team.
In fact, you could make a case for Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets to be the title, largely because while DeHaan, all smiles and handsomeness, appears to be sleep walking through the role, Delevigne gives it pretty much everything she’s got and comes out the more memorable of the two.
Even so, both the leads are outshone by a series of famous cameos with the likes of Ethan Hawke, John Goodman, Herbie Hancock and Rutger Hauer making their presence felt; the star of them all though is Rihanna who provides a deeply-affecting turn as a shimmeringly-colourful shapeshifter, Bubble, who is briefly integral to Valerian and Laureline’s efforts to save the people of Mül, uncover the conspiracy and fight off the bad guys.
In her few key scenes, she is emotionally-resonant in a way that Valerian and Laureline, hampered it must be said by some clunky cheesy dialogue and oddly shoehorned-in exposition, never quite manage, delivering up the kind of humanity that all those deeply-rich visuals are crying out for.
What they also could have done with is a slightly-shorter running time.
Not that Valerian is unforgivably bloated with many of the scenes a delightful excursion into Besson’s epically-imaginative, poppingly-bright worlds, but too much time is given to certain scenes that aren’t desperately essential to the plot, such as it is, and which weigh the film down, sapping what could have been much punchier momentum.
Still, for all that, and yes the flaws are there and reasonably obvious, including a preponderance of “we totally saw that coming!” moments – there’s no real pushing of the narrative envelope but that’s hardly a failing of Valerian alone – Besson’s latest sci-fi extravaganza is a feast for the eyes, and yes, for the soul.
So perfectly-realised is his world of a thousand planets and the people of Mül’s heartbreakingly-beautiful struggle to find a new home, that you can forgive the film’s other shortcomings.
Granted this won’t be possible for everyone – my companion at the screening found all the plot deficiencies and character shortcomings almost fatally-distracting – but if you’re willing to surrender yourself to Besson’s wildly-colourful vision, you will be taken on a journey so luminously rich and wonderful that you might wish you could propel yourself 500 years into the future to join everyone there.