Ladies and gentlemen, we have the movie that the director of THE FIFTH ELEMENT makes eight years after he sees AVATAR. One of the first scenes in Luc Besson’s VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, the one right after the title, brings us to the island paradise planet of Mul, where elongated, glittery-skinned beauties with star-shaped irises fill their giant shell backpacks with pearls, and they feed one to a little pangolin-like creature who puffs up and starts pooping duplicate pearls from under his scales that drop into a hole as an offering to the planet, but suddenly the skies are darkened by an apocalyptic event and the destruction of the planet wakes up our hero Valerian (Dane DeHaan, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) while he’s napping on a beach chair somewhere. And at some point in the middle of that you realize that this is by far the most French-comic-book movie ever made.
And it continues like that, a two hour, 17 minute non-stop kaleidoscope-fantasia-carnival-parade of colorful creatures and planets and space ships and gimmicks inspired by the comics series Valérian and Laureline (1967-2010). The titleistical City of a Thousand Planets (Alpha for short) is a gigantic space station that started out by uniting representatives of every country on Earth, but kept expanding to encompass alien cultures. And since much of the movie takes place on this multi-species megalopolis, this intergalactic Epcot Center, it’s like a marathon of STAR WARS cantina scene after STAR WARS cantina scene.
And you know what’s exciting? Movies are colorful again! There was such a long stretch when everybody wanted to desaturate their movies so much they were practically black and white, or tint them one color (usually blue). That seems to be changing. I’m digging the pinball machine/rock album cover aesthetics of this year’s Marvel movies, and now Besson shows us what a thousand planets worth of colors looks like.
You want to see crazy alien designs? There’s the opening handshake montage of the founding of the city. There’s the Jedi Council-like circle of leaders, where my favorite looks like he’s made out of candy. There’s the red light district where our hero is solicited by a wide selection of prostitutes designed for any fetish. One of them has made herself into Jessica Rabbit! Interesting that that movie lasts and transcends planetary cultures. (Weirdly, Wyclef Jean’s “Stayin’ Alive” song also survives.)
It seems like there are a couple STAR WARS episodes worth of designs for creatures, ships, robots, weapons and uniforms. It’s as bugnuts goofy as JUPITER ASCENDING, but to me it’s much more visually and narratively appealing.
Oh yeah – I should mention that there’s a story and characters! Valerian and Laureline (Cara Delevigne, SUICIDE SQUAD) are cocky, flirtatious young government agents on a mission to steal a converter (which is not a device, but one of those pearl shitting pets I mentioned) from an alien gangster with the voice of John Goodman (DEATH SENTENCE, THE FLINTSTONES). This happens in an action sequence unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It takes place at a spot called “Big Market,” which is a large fenced off patch of desert, but visitors wear goggles that allow them to see into another dimension for their shopping needs. And Valerian has to carry a box designed to transport objects between the dimensions so that he can reach through with his gun to shoot at people. Also this scene involves magnetic metal balls that you shoot at people to weigh them down so much they break through the floor.
If you are looking for a movie where a guy gets cocooned but he has a breather in his mouth that emits a robotic spider that crawls out and uses a laser to cut open the cocoon, this is in the top 5 for sure.
Also if you are looking for a movie where space agents are sent on missions by a holographic Herbie Hancock (‘ROUND MIDNIGHT), in my opinion this is one of your best bets this summer.
NOTE: When Besson first tried to make THE FIFTH ELEMENT in 1992, Prince was cast as Ruby Rhod. But Herbie Hancock as a space commander is much more random. I love knowing that either Besson or his casting director or someone had to have thought “I see Herbie Hancock in this role.” Because I’m guessing he didn’t read the script and love it and beg for an audition. I do wish he had a keyboard and those mannequin parts from the “Rock-It” video with him, but beggars can’t be choosers.
You’ll also see a little Clive Owen and Rutger Hauer and I guess TRANSPORTER directors Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton play captains too. Eventually Ethan Hawke pops up in a light-up jacket as “Jolly the Pimp” and it’s just as joyful as that sounds, though I wish he was in the movie longer. Same goes for Rihanna as the shapeshifting performance artist Bubble, a standout character.
The tone is lighter and jokier than THE FIFTH ELEMENT, more like a screwball comedy with the quipping lovers, and the humor is generally less groan-worthy. I’m talking about things like Corben’s mom chewing out the president on the phone and the priest fainting and that kind of stuff, not Ruby Rhod, who I was hoping would show up on a TV screen or something here. If there were any FIFTH ELEMENT references I missed them, though I did notice some guys at the beginning who looked similar to the Mondoshawan.
But in the end SPOILER there’s a serious thread that really works. The whole thing turns out to revolve around collateral damage from one spaceship shot down in a gigantic space battle. In all the star wars that we’ve seen in all the STAR WARSes I’m not sure I ever considered some random planet getting fucked over from some falling debris. That’s just one of a whole litany of cool concepts in this that I can’t remember seeing in other sci-fi movies. It’s also refreshing that the Pearls, as the people of Mul are called, are a peaceful culture. They do have spears, but they never turn into vengeful warriors, even when guns are pointed at them. You don’t see that too often. Usually in genre movies everyone has to carry a big stick. Even the Gungans and the Ewoks go to war. The Pearls aren’t trying to fight anyone, they’re just trying to get the means to terraform a new home. Until then, like many refugees, they have formed a new community in a big, multi-cultural city.
I’ve talked to people who didn’t like VALERIAN, specifically because they thought DeHaan sucked. I get it – if it was somebody of say a Chris Pratt level of charisma this might even be a hit movie. I also kinda wished that Hawke and Rihanna were the leads. DeHaan talks in a young-Keanu/Chris Klein/Paul Walker dumb guy voice that’s odd for this very capable character. I kept hoping he’d say “I am an F.B.I. agent!” I agree that he’s the movie’s biggest weakness, but he was better than I expected, honestly, and gets a couple good laughs.
I disagree with criticisms of the writing. I think it’s a very effective version of the BARBARELLA type of psychedelic spacetrotting adventure. Being crazy and episodic is a feature, not a bug, and Besson keeps it from getting repetitive. They fight monsters and gangsters and armies, travel galaxies and dimensions, go underwater, experience many creatures and cultures, learn lessons and advance their relationship, and yet this is not, like, saving the galaxy from impending doom or anything like that. It’s just one case. On to the next one.
(I wish. The movie has totally flopped. But I’m glad Besson got to make one.)
It’s funny how something like a miscasting can hobble a movie when it’s the big new release, but a couple years or less from now it won’t even seem very relevant to people who will obsess over the film’s uniqueness. If you can enjoy a fully visual experience based in outlandish sci-fi fantasy, you owe it to yourself to see this. It won’t last in theaters for long, and you’ll regret not seeing it big. (I enjoyed it in 3D myself.)
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.