It must be nice being Luc Besson, stuck at the age of 14 for the past 44 years. Back when I was that age, in the late 1980s, Besson was among my favorite working filmmakers. I adored the earnest wonder of the deep-sea worlds of The Big Blue (1988) and Atlantis (1991), and the stylishly submerged, subterranean universe of Subway (1985), and also the childlike imagination he brought to genre fare such as La Femme Nikita (1989), The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997).
With the notable exception of his 2014 sci-fi action flick, Lucy, Besson’s later career hasn’t had quite the same glow about it, even as the central dynamic in his work has remained true. Grown-up things like character and complexity continue to elude this director. Other filmmakers might dwell on “What happens next?” and “What does it all mean?” Besson, more than just about anyone else, answers the child’s eternal question: “What’s it like?”
This phenomenon pretty much defines Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a film of overwhelming vision and silliness that Besson has apparently been wanting to make since he was 10 — actually, literally 10 — and first discovered Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ groundbreaking French comics Valerian and Laureline. I’m not versed in the source material, so I can’t speak to the movie’s fidelity, but something tells me Besson has made it very much his own. Few other directors could show you how it feels to be a purple-gray alien waking up beside a beach on the far side of the universe, to stretch in the morning light of a strange planet’s many suns and wash your face in a bowl of space pearls. He connects on that level rather than through storytelling: When those aliens are soon engulfed in cataclysm, we still don’t know much about them, but we miss the otherworldly serenity of that beach, with its giant seashells dotting neon-blue waters, and the druggy coolness of those pearls. We mourn the cornea-caressing beauty of what Besson has just shown us and then snatched away.
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Those aliens and their subplot don’t come back for a ridiculously long time in Valerian, and when they do, it’s largely anticlimactic. But no matter; by that point, viewers who can tune into Besson’s wavelength will have been captivated by the film’s other visual riches — by fishlike beings in diving-bell spacesuits, by elongated stick aliens with bubbling-liquid necks, by monkey-anteater hybrids and other tentacular marvels that look part H.P. Lovecraft and part Jim Henson. Here, intergalactic greenhouses open onto secret oceans that open onto endless metal chasms that open onto other impossible places, and in every gravity-defying corner of the frame is a delirious new detail or a fantastic new beast. Valerian is an illuminated cinematic manuscript of what-the-fuckery, at times so mind-meltingly beautiful and strange that I’m still not sure I didn’t just dream it all.
My favorite bit involves the mundanely named Big Market, a cluttered, multilevel, Möbius-inspired mall city of a million shops — think Istanbul’s Covered Bazaar meets the Death Star — that exists in another dimension, so that you have to enter it via special glasses and gloves. (How nice, by the way, to have a 3-D movie — and this one really should be seen in 3-D — in which the characters are also burdened with annoying glasses.)
What’s that? Oh, right — the characters and the story. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot to say there, alas. Our heroes in this journey are the interstellar federation agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who spend much of the film trying to find the missing commander of a massive, 700-year-old space station. The commander is played by Clive Owen, and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that he’s kind of a sinister fellow, so our protagonists’ search for him somehow seems both dangerous and pointless.
And then … what else? I dunno. Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting pole-dancer, in a scene that is neither sexy nor creepy but instead is adorably stupid. Along the way, there’s also some truly awkward banter about Valerian’s crush on Laureline, and his womanizing. (Have I mentioned that Besson absolutely, positively cannot write dialogue? This is why his best movies are still those early ones about mute, moody dudes who want to be dolphins.)
I’m fairly confident that, by this point in his career, Besson grasps his own limitations. And Valerian seems to have been designed for minimum suspense and maximum visual pizzazz: The search for a character we don’t particularly care about is a great excuse to toss us into a lot of new and different spaces. Similarly, Valerian and Laureline haven’t been given anything resembling a real arc: Their bickering is minor, their courtship quick — a whisper-thin relationship for paper-thin people, as if Besson understands that the less time we spend worrying about what they might or might not do, the better. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a movie made by someone who knows how to seduce our eyes and ears, and knows well enough to leave our brains alone.