The visuals in director Luc Besson’s phantasmagoric, candy-coloured, magic carpet ride sci-fi, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, are – by anybody’s definition and in every meaning of the word – fantastic, so best to address that first. The film has the sort of overflowing, eye-watering, glaringly intense aesthetic that might make Hieronymus Bosch or Willy Wonka say: whoa man, too much, too much, let’s tone it down a bit.
Pulling off this sort of frippery requires two kinds of currency. The first: serious coinage. Valerian, in fact, is the most expensive European – and independent – film in history, with an estimated budget pegged north of $US180 million. The second pertains not so much to dollars and cents as the other kind of sense, with an “s”, and only in relation to a complete lack of it – at least when it comes to its mad-as-a-March-hare screenplay, adapted from a 28th century-set comic book series called Valérian and Laureline.
The story has something to do with an armadillo-like creature that excretes precious pearls. Also something to do with a race of gangly, pallid-skinned, Na’vi-like beachbum aliens. At the beginning of the film one of them, on powder white sand, below aqua blue sky, looks up to see terrible bombs falling from the heavens like drops of acid onto fine fabric, raining hell on their idyllic Sunkist-commercial home.
And it has something to do with the titular character. Played by Dane DeHaan, with his now-trademark sleepy-eyed visage – a wry diazepam glare, recently put to excellent use in Gore Verbinski’s also outlandish, occasionally enthralling The Cure For Wellness – Valerian is a Han Solo-esque rascal, but on the right side of the law.
More specifically, a special operative who, along with his partner and love interest Laureline (Cara Delevingne) behaves as if he fell out of an episode of Rick and Morty, whizzing between planets and dimensions with a rather dubious sense of purpose: something about fighting crime across the universe. An early mission takes him to Big Market, a VR-esque bazaar that exists in another dimension, accessed through special equipment including goggles and gloves.
It feels like Luc Besson made a Hollywood deal with the devil, evoking childlike wonder for the visceral ambition of a theme park ride.
When a showdown in a Jabba the Hut-esque lair goes south, Valerian’s hand becomes trapped in this dimension while the rest of his body is in ‘real’ life – on a vast, desert-like expanse. It is a stunning and audacious sequence, among the year’s most memorable, arriving well timed with the current techno-zeitgeist vis-a-vis virtual and augmented realities, and associated dialogue about their utopian (and dystopian) possibilities.
The scope of the Valerian universe is sprawling and interminable, with endless potential for otherworldly peculiarities – like a Douglas Adams book. In one scene a beautiful butterfly lands on Laureline’s hand. She responds too late to Valerian’s warning not to let it touch her; these splendid phosphorescent things are actually bait – as in, the kind an alien life form goes fishing with. They are attached to invisible reels. A fisherman-type extraterrestrial, way up above, starts reeling her in.
Besson gets sidetracked and spun-out by his own universe, with enough set pieces to fill two films and what could generously be described as a lack of focus in the screenplay, which he adapted himself. The dialogue is clunky and the storyline both inconsistent and repetitive. A long stretch in which Laureline rescues a lost-in-space Valerian is followed by a long stretch in which Valerian rescues a lost-in-space Laureline.
There are plenty of exuberant sideshows along the way, including a red-letter cameo from the musician Rihanna, who plays a shapeshifting, poledancing, illegal immigrant-like alien trapped in a strip club ran by Ethan Hawke. She caught the midnight, dimension-penetrating spaceship, going anywhere.
Money and madness can buy a film that looks this nice, though that is not to underestimate the talent involved – including the art of prolific cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, and of production designer Hugues Tissandier, who is obviously in seventh heaven. The clarity and rigor of a well-told story, however, is something else, and no amount of money or splashy scaffolding can camouflage a lack of it.
European – and independent –Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may be, but it feels like Besson made a Hollywood style deal with the devil, evoking childlike wonder for the visceral ambition of a theme park ride. As if somebody spiked the punch, or substituted a glass of milk for a magic mushroom thickshake. Whichever way you put it, Valerian is a wild ride.
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