FILM REVIEW – VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Herbie Hancock. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language. 137 minutes.
It’s funny because I was just complaining last week after watching that miserable “Apes” thing that summer blockbusters seem to have lost their sense of wonder. Nobody ever really marvels at anything in the Marvel movies, their wiseacre, in-jokey screenplays specialize in dragging the fantastic down to the realm of the mundane. Superheroes these days fight in empty stairwells and on anonymous airport tarmacs. Then along comes something like VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, a goofball romp from writer-director Luc Besson so visually bonkers and achingly sincere it’s almost impossible to absorb all at once. The movie is a cuckoo-bananas, madcap mess with stilted dialogue, iffy performances and the final half-hour just kind of stalls when it should soar. Still, I want to see it again as soon as possible.
Based on the 1960s French comic book “Valerian and Laureline,” this is the movie Besson claims he has wanted to make ever since he was ten years old. That the film feels like a ten-year-old directed it is both an accurate summation of its shortcomings and a high compliment indeed. Set some 700 years in the future, the movie imagines an intergalactic utopia where all planets share knowledge and goodwill in a massive space station megalopolis and Rutger Hauer is president of the galaxy. Young Leonardo DiCaprio wannabe Dane DeHaan and runway supermodel Cara Delevingne star as agents of a peacekeeping federation, assigned by their supervisor Herbie Hancock (!!!) to investigate the disappearance of an obviously sinister military commander, played by Clive Owen with maximum sneer.
I honestly couldn’t summarize the permutations of the plot with a gun to my head, but basically Owen has done dire wrong to a planet of translucent-skinned, loincloth-wearing cousins to the Na’vi in “Avatar,” and the endangered tribe’s deceased princess has somehow beamed her consciousness into the not-exactly-crowded skull of DeHaan’s swaggering hotshot Valerian. Meanwhile, our hero is constantly trying to get into the space drawers of partner Laureline, prompting Delevingne to give her famously furrowed eyebrows quite an amusing workout.
But really the movie is about these two kids heedlessly running and jumping into one crazy, non-sequitur set-piece after another. Besson seems hellbent on putting every penny of the $180 million budget on screen, cramming the frames with so many bizarre alien creatures and spectacular vistas it verges on sensory overload. (This is a rare movie where it’s worth shelling out the extra bucks for 3D.) Anyone who’s seen “The Fifth Element” already knows that Besson’s ga-ga sensibility is unencumbered by taste, and there’s a rip-roaring recklessness to “Valerian’s” tangents–like the scene in which Laureline needs to locate her missing partner by sticking her head inside the ass of a psychic jellyfish. (I guess I could try to tell you why, but would any explanation suffice?)
My favorite bit finds Valerian cruising a red light district known as “Paradise Alley,” where everybody somehow still listens to Wyclef Jean and Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting pole dancer for a side story that summons a surprising amount of pathos. Ethan Hawke hamming it up as a piano-playing space pimp named Jolly is not something I was expecting to see at the movies this week––or really ever––but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted. This genuinely nutzoid sequence culminates in a Lewis Carroll-styled procession presenting food to a pot-bellied emperor of a species that looks like melting clay, while Delevingne models a hat the size of a helicopter blade.
Such a shame all this gaudy madness eventually has to settle down into some semblance of a story, and you can feel the film begin to deflate upon Owen’s return. The title character is also a problem, as there might possibly be a way to make Valerian’s antiquated lothario routine charming, but casting charisma-vacuum Dane DeHaan is certainly not it.
But really, who cares? Such matters feel like mere nitpicks when there’s this much invention and exuberance on the screen. The experience of watching “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is perhaps best summed up by a chase sequence in which our hero starts kicking his way through walls in the thickly settled title town. He barges through one wondrous world after another, giving us quick glimpses of odd environments and eerie extraterrestrials, and an imagination that apparently has no bounds.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.