Mark Reviews Movies

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Sam Spruell, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Kris Wu, Sasha Luss, Aymeline Valade, Pauline Hoarau, Alain Chabat, Herbie Hancock, Rutger Hauer, the voices of Elizabeth Debicki, John Goodman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 7/21/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 20, 2017

It always seems a bit too convenient that aliens in science-fiction movies end up, for the most part, looking humanoid. The opening montage of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets challenges that tendency and, by extension, displays the movie's willingness to go for the odd or downright bizarre in terms of its characters and world. It's strange, yes, but that's kind of the point. In a universe of unimaginable size, it's pretty much a guarantee that other lifeforms would look a bit strange to us—and us to them.

The movie opens with the end of the Space Race in 1975, when an American spacecraft docked with a Soviet one. The sequence moves through the future, with the beginning of the International Space Station, and continues on through the decades, with over a century's worth of visitors to the satellite.

The visitors look familiar at first, and at a certain point, there are no more nations on Earth left to see it. Suddenly, the envoys are no longer human. Aliens have found our species, and humanity welcomes them with a sturdy handshake, which is hesitantly or sloppily met by these extraterrestrial diplomats. It's especially sloppy in the case of the race of fish-like aliens, who survive out of the water in hulking diving suits with a glass dome in the chest, so that the fish-things can see.

With each new country and species that arrives, the station grows in size, until it's a massive sphere in Earth's orbit. Around 2150, the station, now called the Alpha Space Station, reaches critical mass and must be pushed into space toward another galaxy. There, surely, it will meet new forms of life, expand even further, and serve as a beacon of humanity's willingness to work in fellowship with anyone who or anything that steps onboard.

This is some intriguing, amusing, and, ultimately, hopeful stuff that opens writer/director Luc Besson's imaginative space adventure. The story, unsurprisingly, comes from a comic book series—namely Valérian and Laureline, created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. The series' first publication was in 1967, before our modern understanding of what a space adventure could be in the movies was established.

The movie's story is set in the 28th century. The Alpha station is now the home of 30 million beings from across over 200 species. It's divided into four, ecologically diverse sections to best accommodate those alien races: a sector of liquid, one of gas, another of fiber-optic metal, and, of course, a sprawling metropolis where humans and humanoids can live and breathe. Traveling between planets only takes about 20 minutes. A desert planet houses a market with over a million stores, because the entirety of the market is located in another dimension. There's a paradise of a planet, where a human-like race lives in harmony with nature and has a little creature that can replicate any matter by, let's say, sweating (Let's hope it's sweat).

Besson doesn't just build a world here. He has built a universe, and the best parts of the movie are the times at which it simply examines them. There's a story, of course, established by another prologue, in which the paradise planet is destroyed by spaceships that explode through the atmosphere and crash with globe-exploding impact. It all has to do with finding the last of those replicating creatures—for reasons that aren't really explicated but, let's face it, don't really matter.

The heroes are Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), federal agents of the human alliance on Alpha. He's a roguish kid of a man, who doesn't follow the rules (until a climactic moment when he only cares about them), and she is his equal in ability and his better in judgment. Valerian wants to marry her. Laureline knows too much about him to accept his proposal or dismiss it outright.

Their adventures take them to the inter-dimensional market, where a chase scene gets a boost by having part of Valerian in the market dimension, while the rest of them is simply running through the desert and bumping into tourists (The metaphysics of this aren't explained well enough for it to make much sense, but something new is at least something new). It also takes them to the various sections of Alpha, including a stop in the station's red-light district, where Valerian gets a special performance from the shape-shifting Bubble (Rihanna), who goes through about a dozen costume changes without leaving the stage. Laureline has a run-in with some muscular, slug-faced beings, who pant like dogs, seem obsessed with human fashion, and want to please their emperor with exotic food.

When the movie gives us these moments, it's easy to dismiss the constraints of a familiar plot—about a hidden enemy in the station and a conspiracy to keep the lid on what happened in paradise. It becomes more difficult as Besson's screenplay increasingly makes that plot the focus. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gives us a vast place, filled with unique characters, and keeps its tone humorously light—as awkward as some of that humor may be. The last thing it needs is the damper of this plot, which always threatens to interrupt and eventually overtakes the genuine sense of imagination and discovery that Besson offers.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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