‘Valerian’ Packs An Incredible World Into One Big, Visual Rollercoaster (Movie Review)

About halfway through writer/director Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, my main thought was how I just wanted more of this. The film had not even concluded, but I had already bought so much into this sci-fi/fantasy world that I was ready to see further adventures of Valerian and Laureline. Fortunately, the film is based on a French comic from the 1960s with plenty of additional stories and Besson is a filmmaker full of imagination, with a deep investment in this series. That’s great news, as even when Valerian feels more like it’s just taking diversions for the sake of seeing more funky-looking creatures, this movie is a joy to watch.

Much of the joy and enthusiasm I have for the film comes from the ideas put in place from the start. The film opens with an early look at humanity’s introduction to space, only to trace that path hundreds of years into the future. It is during that time that peace is found between various countries as they make their way into space, leading further to having different alien races form alliances. Before you know it, a massive space station is established, featuring the populations of many different alien races, living in a sort of harmony that we could only wish our planet could have.

Given the numerous apocalyptic and dystopian sci-fi films that come our way so often, it’s great to see something relatively new (it’s an obscure, French comic after all) presented in such a way. Yes, there’s a plot that involves a few less than savory characters, but even the main villains are working in service of what they believe to be a greater good. Valerian ascribes itself to an optimistic universe that looks fun to be in and then places us in a detective story involving a lost race of aliens.

The film stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as Special Agents Valerian and Laureline. They are partners who are clearly into each other, despite being held back from embracing a deeper emotional connection. The relationship is so close to being like Nick and Nora, were it not for the fact that half the audience will likely not buy into these actors. DeHaan, in particular, has a decidedly different vibe from a typical Hollywood action star, but then again, Besson has always had his idiosyncrasies that make his casting choices jive with the weirdness around the characters.

As for the plot, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with retrieving an item, which leads to an outstanding opening half hour, as well as a gateway into the rest of the story. The kidnapping of a Commander (Clive Owen) leads to a pursuit and investigation by the Special Agents, which introduces them to the world of Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. It means going on perilous if a bit slight, adventures that have the two meeting, fighting, and befriending a variety of different creatures, while also working out their relationships with each other.

We’ve seen these types of characters before, and this story has been told in various ways in the past well. That doesn’t make it any less fun. Valerian’s cost upwards of $180 million and that all comes through on screen to show off a fascinating world full of imagination, exciting action, neat technology and more. At 137 minutes, the film takes a lot of time to introduce us to this world, and who matters, but also never feels convoluted or lost in its storytelling. If anything, it could use more narrative surprises to go along with all the wonder. That in mind, Avatar delivered to the same degree and while that may have been a truly transportive experience, Valerian is doing a pretty great job of following in its footsteps.

Back in 1997, Besson delivered The Fifth Element, a cult favorite sci-fi film that had plenty of ambition to deliver a visual roller coaster on a budget that worked for the time. It should be no surprise that Valerian’s co-creator Jean-Claude Mézières was involved with the production design on that film. Here, we now have a time where visual effects technology has caught up with what’s possible to put on screen. There will always be a great appreciation for the tangible nature of practical effects (and there are still many in this film), but there is a real wonder to be found in how Besson delivers this world. I could say it’s distracting, but only because of how interested I was in seeing what kinds of work was done to bring all of these intricate pieces to life.

It’s that intrigue, along with the lightness of tone that consistently helps Valerian deliver on what it promises. It has a feel indebted to Besson and European filmmaking in general, keeping it from feeling constrained by what can be found in many other typical blockbusters (give or take some familiar tropes). There are action scenes that flow nicely and a score by Alexandre Desplat that shifts between lighthearted and epic at the appropriate turns. There’s plenty of humor to be found, and it never comes across as snide or purports itself to be anything above some of the more goofy sensibilities that would be found in an old school comic book delivered through the mind that gave us Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod.

Valerian has plenty going for it in a way that once again brings out the joy in going to the movies. It’s made with the latest and greatest technology and lacks any cynicism to take away from how much of a fun experience the film is aiming to be. It may come off as a bit short-sided if the leads do not work for the viewer (though at least they get to act amidst so many visual effects, as opposed to letting the effects do all the work), but there is still a whole world that could, at the very least, be interesting. Whatever the case may be, I was happy to dive into this universe and would be glad to continue living in it.

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