Luc Besson is back on the big screen with a sci-fi flick in the vein of his 1997 fan favourite The Fifth Element. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is supported by surreal visuals and dynamic action sequences – even if the narrative at the centre of the film lacks direction.
Based on the 1960s French science fiction comic series Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, the film stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the agents in the title, as well as Kris Wu (in case you’ve missed a few SBS PopAsia updates recently).
EXO’s Wu made his Hollywood debut in xXx: Return of Xander Cage this year, and his casting in Valerian as Captain Neza further cements his place as a star with global appeal.
The film’s opening scene sets the tone of what’s to come. We see earth’s space station captains shaking hands with each other over the course of decades, as countries come together to explore the vastness of space. Years pass, handshakes continue, and then there’s first contact.
From this point, we see humans shaking hands with increasingly bizarre alien species, all set to David Bowie's Space Oddity. The scene captures a sense of childlike wonder of the unknown, but also plays to the film’s strengths, in the sense that this is a scene without dialogue.
Valerian is space opera at its most OTT – and that is definitely meant as a compliment. The City of a Thousand Planets from the title gives Besson free reign to indulge in his imagination with unexpected alien species and psychedelic set pieces. It’s a trip through space.
Much like the recent War for the Planet of the Apes, it’s a film that wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago. Valerian not only utilises the advancements in CGI over the past few decades, but relies on them entirely.
The special effects are used to create an endless array of extraterrestrials, but also to set up elaborate visual jokes. For example, in one scene Valerian and Laureline pull off a government heist inside a trans-dimensional marketplace – where the equivalent of stereotypical American tourist groups are guided through a VR shopping bazaar.
The joke is in watching tourists wander through a deserted, desert landscape, spending their money on objects so useless they are literally not there. It’s an obvious but satisfying indictment of over-consumption.
Perhaps where the influence of the original 1960s comic is most obvious is in how unashamedly cheesy Valerian is. Besson’s script alternates between madcap hijinks, goofy humour, and unearned earnestness - and it feels like the actors are similarly hamming it up for the cameras.
Dane DeHaan pulls off loveable rogue with a heart of gold, Cara Delevingne is solid as his spunky partner, and Clive Owen is delightfully and obviously evil as Commander Arün Filitt. There’s never any doubt about where the film is going, or how it’s going to end.
Wu’s role is much more than a cameo, with Captain Neza playing an increasingly prominent part as the film progresses. He’s right at the centre of the action as the film reaches its peak and the clock is – literally – counting down. (Yes, this is a film with a countdown. Remember the aforementioned the goofiness?)
Besson has inarguably chosen style over substance while making Valerian – but if visual thrills are your thing, you’re in for a cheesy treat.
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