Well. Here’s a difficult situation. I’m supposed to review Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; the new film from Luc Besson. In two hours, this crams in more ideas and potential Think Piece entry points that several seasons of a TV show. Similarly, I crammed in more emotional reactions in the theater than I should have expressed across several seasons on a TV show. So at least me and Luc Besson know how to dance as partners. But how do you sum that up in a piece that offers any kind of entry point? I actually don’t know.
Let’s just try to dance together.
Valerian opens on a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in which we see the progress of humanity in space… from current day onwards. A space station in Earth’s orbit begins welcoming visitors from non-American countries, and one day we get our first alien visitor. Over a series of hundreds of handshakes, we watch the expansion of America to Earth to an inter-universal series of thousands of cultures collaborating on science and existence in the pursuit of bettering each other.
This is when I started crying.
The film Apollo 13 was the last time I remember being so filled with a desire to see humanity use our minds and science to further our place in the universe on this scale. And in a time when America is giving up on science, even refusing to believe in climate change for our own world, this made the entire thing so goddamned bleak. This wouldn’t be the last time that a film that spent many years in development would hit on modern politics in a way that felt like an almost personal attack, and it is easily the best part of what Valerian brings to the table.
Anyhow, the thousand planets stem from a space station that begins in Earth orbit.
After this intro sequence, we spend an unusual amount of time disconnected from the Thousand Planets space station where these coexisting aliens all live and instead meet an Avatar-esque group of super-affectionate aliens on a peaceful planet that seems centered around the worship of tiny rat-cats that poop diamonds. Their world is destroyed when debris from a space war they are uninvolved with come plummeting into the atmosphere, and a tiny band of survivors finds shelter in an alien ship before watching their princess be vaporized by the blast.
Elsewhere in the universe (and in time) we meet Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who never become characters that can distract us from the fact they are Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. They’re partnered secret agents that defend the universe, but also might be dating if it weren’t for Dane keeping a playlist of his previous sexual conquests. They’ve been called to an alien world to retrieve a secret thing from secret people in a secret way. Honestly, plot doesn’t matter, but we will see them on their second of four (four!) beaches in the film that allows the director to put Delevingne in different bikinis— all based on Milla Jovovich’s famous outfit from Fifth Element, which makes me wonder if Besson would be better suited to just making cosplay and cutting out the movie-making element entirely.
From there, we’re thrown into a sequence that includes blackmail, multi-layered chase sequences across dimensions, and an unending series of cool weapons and bizarre aliens. Honestly, this sums up most of the movie. But how effective is that? Extremely. These sequences are gorgeous and engaging and do “action movie stuff,” consistently, in ways that only a science fiction film could imagine. Dane DeHaan running through an imaginary mall from a different dimension while having his hand stuck in a cross-dimensional box that floats around shooting things… it’s the closest thing you’ll see to a movie where “Big Head Mode” from 90s multiplayer shooters would fit right in.
After this first act intro to the world of secret agent universe-defending, we finally end up in the Thousand World space station place, where thousands of different species have found a way to co-habitate. There’s four entirely different environments in this place, including a gas world and underwater locales, and it all builds towards a thought I’ve had since Guardians of the Galaxy: it is maybe time for a Mass Effect movie.
The ability to tell a story without having to explain what every alien culture does is something that audiences are okay with now. That said, this story has a hard time working properly because it should have an extra two to ten hours to play itself out. Then we could have done some less obvious things than introducing Clive Owen’s character with the kind of oboe-and-cello stings that let you know he’s a bad guy from the moment he first appears.
As for our heroes, well… you know historic movie sexism? The kind based on sexual histories and “who is the better driver” and so on? It’s here that a back-and-forth on those topics starts between the heroes, but the movie moves beyond it so quickly that it made my head spin. Act Two is given entirely to Delevingne, who (despite what you may have heard) acts circles around all the “real actors” in this film. She has to save her partner, who doesn’t give her an appropriate level of credit, but she immediately calls out his poor behavior. It’s… look, Besson is doing better work than you might expect, and it isn’t perfect but it gives me hope.
The story takes some twists with bringing back the peaceful alien race as the possible-antagonists and crafts a complicated third act that feels like a companion to Spider-Man: Homecoming in its focus on collateral damage around the stereotypical heroes. This is the Howard Zinn of superhero movies, and I’m so happy it exists.
It’s still a bad movie.
This is a problem, because when bad films stir some real feelings inside of you, you don’t see it coming. You’d expect it from genre work like bad horror, but in a summer tentpole film, I wasn’t ready? Rihanna has a sequence that steals the film, where she moves from sex worker to illegal immigrant in search of redemption, and it’s a shockingly moving sequence in a film that has a trio of Jew Stereotype Duckmonsters selling information to the highest bidder.
Valerian is a film of competing ideas wrapped in the prettiest possible packaging. It is incredibly fun to watch, and even brutal in what it brings to the table in its criticism, but it also shamelessly exploits Besson’s own catalogue for much lesser returns on investment and while it seems somehow vitally important today, I cannot imagine it will mean nearly as much six months from now when the rest of the world sees it on demand.
In agreement with my editor Laura, I think this is something you need to see in a theater. Not just for scale, but for time and place. Valerian is a vision of the future that will not age well, but might punch you in the stomach today, and that’s a rare call to action for pop culture addicts.