To hear science fiction movies tell it, the future is going to be a hellish nightmare world of war, famine, pestilence and bad weather. Meanwhile, the news reminds us every day that we have little to look forward to, that the planet is doomed, and that perhaps it would be best to enjoy little frivolities like water, energy and air conditioning while we still can.
It’s a cynical world in which we live, even within our fantasies, and that’s a big part of the reason why Luc Besson’s ambitious sci-fi spectacular Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets plays like a welcome reprieve from literally everything everywhere. It welcomes the audience into a future world full of dangers and conflict, certainly, but also of hope, sensitivity, acceptance and – perhaps most importantly – the most eye-popping imagery imaginable.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the story of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two intergalactic heroes who spend half the time bickering flirtatiously, and the other half saving the universe. Their latest adventure takes them from one unbelievable locale to another, including a bizarre bazaar that can only be witnessed with special glasses (and only touched via special gloves), and an impossibly gargantuan space station in which every species imaginable lives in relative harmony, in highly specialized environments that make it feel, more or less, like a “city of a thousand planets”.
This city, like many cities, was founded on optimism. In a remarkable opening sequence, Luc Besson guides us through the history of the station from its humble beginnings in Earth’s orbit – where different cultures came together in harmony, free from political anxiety – to our first contact with an alien life form. And then another. And then another. Through a series of handshakes and hugs, the city grows in size and symbolic significance until it outgrows the planet Earth itself. It’s the ultimate fantasy of what our future could and probably should be.
Centuries later the station is still a bastion of diplomacy, but it’s large enough that dangers lurk within its confines. On their latest mission, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting an endangered species – an odd little creature that replicates anything it eats, via a physical process that’s guaranteed to elicit some giggles – and they find themselves at the center of a conspiracy, a rebellion and a series of excuses to rescue each other from various, wondrous, thrilling situations.
The plot of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is pulpy, even a little simplistic. The characters are positive and heroic and on the thin side. Cara Delevingne is an exciting, principled and intriguing breakout star but Dane DeHaan can’t quite match her level of engagement or wittiness. He’s playing a brooding hunk instead of a dashing hero, and he feels a little out of place in a world where – theoretically – everyone is supposed be able to fit in.
But a few off-key performances and a basic, MacGuffin-based storyline can’t detract from the unbridled magic of Valerian. Luc Besson’s film is a breathless travelogue of never-before-seen locations, characters and action sequences. The intricate, colorful beauty of a film like Avatar gets magnified and multiplied a thousand times over in Valerian, giving audiences a kaleidoscopic tour of colorful, fascinating worlds. And even though Besson loves to barrel through these worlds as quickly as possible, to the extent that you almost can’t believe your eyes, he also knows well enough to occasionally slow down, to highlight the little details, and make you wish that you lived inside this beautiful, polychromatic fantasy realm.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one of the most gorgeous science fiction movies ever made. Extemporaneous and unpredictable, it’s the perfect antidote to certain “other” sci-fi movies, which seem to have given up on breaking new ground, and now seem content to rely on recycling bits and pieces of themselves. Valerian is distinctive and innovative, and seemingly high on its own capacity for wonders. Don’t get hung up on a few minor malfunctions: this is profoundly exciting filmmaking, and one of the best films of the year.
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Top Photo: STX Entertainment
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.