This is a very silly movie, and if you are someone who prefers your science-fiction stories more on the serious side, you’re probably going to dislike it immensely. But if you appreciate world-building, splashy and epic visuals, and a playful quality to your version of the future, then Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is custom-built for you. Based on the comic books (some of which date back to the late 1960s) by Pierre Christin (writer) and Jean-Claude Mézières (artist), directed and adapted by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy), the film almost defies conventional critical dissection because the whole reason it works boils down to an agreed-upon, collective insanity that is apparently the norm in the 28th century. All I know is that the weirder things got, the more I dug them.
Valerian opens with a couple of prologues, one of which explains that the City of a Thousand Planets is basically just the International Space Station with a few more walk-in closets. In fact over the centuries, the habitat grew and grew to accommodate more astronauts—at first just from earth, but then eventually many from beyond earth. The station, eventually renamed Alpha, got so large that its gravity rivaled earth’s and it had to be pushed out into deep space to keep from being a threat. When we get to the film’s version of the present day, Alpha is practically the size of a moon and plays home to thousands of alien creatures, making the film ripe for creature building at the highest level.
The other introductory story involve a paradise-like planet, on which the local inhabitants have a reciprocal relationship with nature that keeps everything in balance. But one day, the inhabitants are wiped out, save a handful, but an unprovoked attack from above that appears almost accidental but is more precisely the result of warring parties in space who didn’t care about any level of collateral damage. The alien race in question does bear a passing resemblance to Avatar’s Na’vi and appears to have been created (visual-effects-wise) in a similar way. One key figure of this race is Haban Limai (voiced supplied by Elizabeth Debicki, motion capture work by Aymeline Valade), whose body does not survive the onslaught but she still finds a way to send her essence out into the universe.
Again, in the present day, we meet the special-ops team of Valerian (Dane DeHaan of The Cure for Wellness) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne of Suicide Squad), who work for the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock!) to maintain order among the human areas of universe. Their new assignment is to assist Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) in assessing the threat level of what appears to be a radiation leak at the center of Alpha—a task others have been sent in to carry out but none have returned. And while reaching the core and solving its big mystery is, in fact, the point of Valerian, the real fun lies in the journey, where we meet alien life in all shapes and sizes.
What will likely end up being the most talked-about sequence in the film is also the moment that will either have you embracing the absurdity of Valerian with both arms or make you want to run screaming from the theater. In a red-light district, Jolly the Pimp (an amped-up Ethan Hawke) tempts Valerian with his club, which features Bubble (a shape-shifting, costume-changing Rihanna), who turns out to be a gelatinous alien who helps Valerian sneak into a forbidden (to humans) area of Alpha. Her dance number is a ridiculous, nonsense moment that brought me a ridiculous amount of joy, and if it doesn’t do the same for you, you probably won’t enjoy this movie. I believe it’s that simple.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is vibrant, electric, thrilling and so impressive in terms of the place Besson is bringing us into that I’m desperate to freeze-frame certain landscapes within Alpha just to study the detail. DeHaan and Delevingne have genuine chemistry that goes beyond a potential romance (although that’s a layer in their relationship, to be sure). Their banter stems from both a long-standing friendship and a work-partnership shorthand that allows them to make quick decisions without much discussion.
If you’re worn down by grim visions of the future (Alien Covenant, the upcoming Blade Runner 2049), Valerian is the antidote. It’s rambunctious and outrageous, but above all else, it keeps things fun, even in its darkest moments. And it features some of the most inviting uses of 3D I’ve seen outside of animated films in quite some time.