Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one of those movies you’re going to appreciate a lot more the second time you see it. With a hefty running time of almost 140 minutes, there’s a lot to the narrative that makes no sense until you finally arrive at the last reel and things come together. Before that, however, it’s a master class in computer graphics and visual effects that might veer into video game territory occasionally, but is still breathtaking in its sheer imagination and originality.
And then there’s the storyline. Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, truth is that the movie has nothing at all to do with the book other than the name and two main characters, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The movie story is about the evolution of space travel to the creation of a space station, to space station Alpha growing so big that it threatens the safety of Earth and is pushed out into deep space. All of that’s told in the first few minutes of the film, so pay attention!
Four hundred years later, Alpha is essentially a massive man-made planet with millions of residents representing over a thousand different species from, yes, a thousand different planets. It’s a fantastic place with obvious echoes of director Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element with the usual sci-fi sprinkling of Blade Runner. But it’s the sheer size, the variety, the explosion of creatures and spaces that really sets Valerian apart, because it’s just delightful.
Once we get the story of how space station Alpha was created, the film switched rather confusingly to the Eden-like world of Mül, where the natives (known as “Pearls”) are clearly inspired by the aliens from Avatar. In fact, particularly if you see the 3D showing of Valerian, you’ll find much from Avatar inspired Besson and his production team.
The entire Mül sequence is a timeworn tale of innocent natives crushed by evil bad guys, in this case having military spaceships appear in their otherwise azure sky, just to crash on the planet and wreak massive havoc. What does that have to do with the story or with Valerian and Laureline? You’ll have to wait about an hour to find out, something that happens all too often in the movie. Besson is a great storyteller, but in Valerian, he plays very coy and it leads to a film that is quite confusing even as it’s fantastically imaginative and visually ingenious.
In this future galaxy, about 500 years hence, Valerian and Laureline are time cops, law enforcement specialists who are sent throughout the galaxy (and, in the graphic novels, through time) to stop criminals and their misdeeds. Valerian is the rules-following rogue with a girl in every port, and Laureline is his long-suffering partner who is smart, determined and brings heart and emotion to Valerian’s rulebook. And they’re both sexy and appealing, no question, which brings a lot of energy to their non-stop flirting. DeHaan and Delevingne are both very well cast, bringing exactly the right touch to these two surprisingly likeable characters on screen.
There are a lot of cameos in the film too, so watch closely. Credited actors include Rutger Hauer, John Goodman, Ethan Hawke and Herbie Hancock, but it won’t surprise me if it turns out that there were more under those masks, CG and face paint. Rihanna plays one of the most fascinating characters in the movie, Bubble, a shape-shifting pole dancer (yes, you read that right) who offers up one of the sexiest alien dances ever conveyed on screen. You might want to cover your young child’s eyes for this one, assuming you’re not just gaping at the screen.
There’s a lot more going on in the movie, and yes, the story does all finally weave together in an interesting, albeit predictably anti-establishment way (again, an echo of the fundamentally daft Avatar storyline), but like a ride at an amusement park, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is much more about the visuals, about the experience of learning about this fantastical future, than it is an exercise in narrative and coherent storytelling.
It’s fun, comedic, sure to be a hit with little ones, and wildly imaginative. Go see Valerian And the City of a Thousand Planets on a big screen because of that, and, perhaps the second time you watch the film, all the narrative elements will fall into place and the story will make sense too. It’s worth the confusion.