Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review
In the summer of the sturdily present-tense Air Force One, Men in Black and The Lost World, Besson’s crackpot science-fiction opus somehow felt both quaintly dated and nosebleed-inducingly futuristic: see Milla Jovovich’s tangerine bob and barely-there bandage bodysuit (another Gaultier number) for details.
The film’s look and feel were shaped in no small part by the visionary concept art Besson commissioned from the comic-book artist Jean-Claude Mézières, who came up with those ravine-like cityscapes criss-crossed by bobbing queues of hover-cars – think Fritz Lang’s Metropolis gone Looney Tunes.
Cinema-goers noticed elements of Star Wars and Blade Runner in the madcap mix, but The Fifth Element’s spiritual ancestor was Valérian and Laureline, a comic strip about two spacefaring secret agents Mézières had created with Pierre Christin in the 1960s. In many ways, Besson’s film was his deeply 1990s cover version of the pair’s adventures – he’d been a voracious Valérian reader since the age of eight.
All of which is to say that Besson’s 13th live-action feature – an official adaptation of Valérian and Laureline – brings his career full circle in a mesmerising Möbius loop. In just the same way as The Fifth Element, it’s blockbuster fun with the lights left on: slinky, energised and tirelessly inventive, with no thought in its pretty little head but to bombard you with delight.
That it roundly succeeds is down to Besson’s willingness to throw around an entire IKEA’s worth of kitchen sinks. One of the best things about Valerian is that there’s just so much of it: its ugly-beautiful crush of colours makes Guardians of the Galaxy look like I, Daniel Blake, and while it deserves to be seen big (in crystalline dual 4K 3D if possible), it’s also built for late night Blu-ray binges, with the pause and frame advance buttons within thumb’s reach.
Its generous spirit is in evidence right from the disarming, Space Oddity-strumming prologue, in which the human inhabitants of a space station in Earth’s orbit welcome increasingly outlandish visitors aboard with the same convivial handshake.
This outpost snowballs over 400-and-some years into a free-floating metropolis called Alpha – the dazzlingly realised City of a Thousand Planets of the title, where an endless range of alien cultures rub along in rainbow-hued semi-harmony. Clive Owen plays the gruff commandant of the station’s governing force, and his temples are the only grey things for miles around.
But a strange cloud of radiation has bloomed close to Alpha’s core: scanners can’t penetrate it, while the scouting parties sent to investigate don’t come back. Special measures are required, which is where Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) come in: they’re dispatched by Owen, working in an uneasy alliance with a galactic defence minister (played by the jazz pioneer Herbie Hancock, of all people), to unearth and neutralise the radiation’s source. A fluorescent hedgehog ends up playing a pivotal role, because of course it does.
Look: no-one would argue that DeHaan and Delevingne are the new Bogie and Bacall, but the two are absolutely right for Besson’s purposes here – which is to say they’re both young, hot, archly charming, and game to crash attractively through whichever outlandish surroundings the film catapults them into next. (There’s an exhilarating chase scene in which Valerian runs, tumbles, hopscotches and torpedoes through Alpha’s diverse habitats in such swift succession that your eyes can barely keep up.)
DeHaan has shown enough impish charisma elsewhere – The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), say – for his suitability to come as no surprise. But Delevingne, who’s still better known as a fashion model, is a more-than-minor revelation, particularly as her last blockbuster role, as Suicide Squad’s gyrating sorceress, was such a washout.
The dialogue Besson lobs at them can be stilted and, shall we say, a touch romantically retrograde. But it’s in keeping with the film’s cornier-than-life vibe: I particularly loved an odd, funny moment in which Laureline mistakenly sends Valerian blasting out of the wrong airlock, only for him to calmly downplay the inconvenience before correcting course. You could also pick a fight with the plot, but it’d be like wrestling noodles: the only thing it’s designed to do is thread together set-pieces, which it does perfectly capably.
Take the sprawling mid-film detour that features Rihanna’s shapeshifting burlesque queen, Ethan Hawke’s eyeshadow-sporting pimp, a cavernous throne room, teeming neon alleyways, and a wonderful visual gag involving an enormous lemon. It gets the story nowhere, but Valerian is a film to wallow in, not follow, and if you’re tuned to its extra-terrestrial wavelength, you wouldn’t cut a second.
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