12 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Now, look. It'd be easy for me to sit here and shit all over Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, because it's just that kind of movie. Big, bold, colourful, earnest and downright goofy is rarely a combination that results in critical success thanks to how easy it is to feel superior to the movie in question, and the dozens of articles written only to tear down Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in the most verbose, scathing way possible bear that out. But as entertaining as those articles are to read, director Luc Besson's latest is a film that while certainly not for everyone seemed to operating on my exact wavelength throughout - and try as I might, this big, bold, colourful, earnest and downright goofy film is one that I simply can't force myself to be cynical about. If enjoying Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is wrong, then buddy, I don't want to be right.

After a great little montage takes us from the modern day to the 28th Century, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows special agents Valerian and Laureline as they keep the peace on Alpha, the space-borne city that the ISS has morphed into over the best part of a millennium. It's inhabited by hundreds and hundreds of different alien species, all there to share their knowledge and expertise with the rest of the universe - but after Valerian receives a strange vision of a dying planet and the leaders of Alpha are attacked at a summit held to discuss a radiation leak at Alpha's center, Valerian and Laureline are forced to go off the grid in order to figure out what exactly is going on.

Does Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets consistently choose the most confusing way to tell that story? Yes. Is Dane DeHaan hilariously miscast as the cool, cocksure and capable Valerian? Without a doubt. Is Luc Besson insane? Quite possibly, but ultimately these are all things that only add to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets' unique, off-kilter charm. Space operas may have seen a popularity spike in recent years thanks to the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, but I can virtually guarantee that you won't see anything like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets any time soon, thanks not just to the sheer imagination and inventiveness that makes this universe pop throughout, but also the earnestness behind it.

Because unlike a great many blockbusters these days (and as much as I love them, I blame Marvel Studios for this), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets takes itself seriously. That's not to say that it's a "serious film" by any stretch of the imagination - it's little more than a blast throughout, focused almost solely on sheer entertainment and spectacle - it's just that unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which keeps its tongue firmly in cheek throughout, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn't feel the need to poke fun at itself or undercut its own emotional moments, instead allowing them to play out straight. The fear of being cheesy is one that seems to have shaped a lot of modern blockbusters for better or for worse, and while there are definitely points at which Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets suffers for it, I can't help but respect the honesty with which it presents itself. Luc Besson simply doesn't care if you think he's being cheesy, and that's a level of confidence that I really appreciate seeing in a film that's this unapologetically weird.

And it's that commitment to being as weird and out there as possible that makes Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as enjoyable as it is, more than enough to make up for it's otherwise fairly standard (some might even say trite) but still inoffensive story and characters. Restraint seems to be a word not found in Luc Besson's dictionary - there are more bizarre concepts, impossible technologies and truly alien designs thrown at the audience in the first fifteen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets than most science fiction films manage throughout their entire run time, and the vividity and confidence with which they're presented to us is never anything less than spectacular. It's impossible to deny that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a simply gorgeous film, a combination of brilliant CGI, imaginative concepts and functional framing that means even when the story loses itself, you're just happy to be swept up in this world.

If there's one honest to God problem that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets can't make up for with its visuals, it's the decision to jump into this world with Valerian and Laureline already well-established as a functional team. What could have been a fairly traditional buddy cop origin type relationship is instead something else entirely, robbing us of the chance to become endeared with these characters as they get to know each other and instead putting us in the awkward position of being thrown quite literally into the middle of their relationship. As such, our introduction to them is a cringe-inducing and awfully written scene in which they "playfully bicker" while explaining each other's personalities to one another in a poorly masked attempt to quickly and easily get the audience up to speed - it's not a great foot to get off on, and I'd struggle to blame those that tap out there and then.

But those that do stick around will if nothing else find Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to be an entertaining and wholly unique movie, one that when all is said and done I enjoyed an enormous amount, flaws and all. That's certainly not to say that everyone will like it - I'd wager more than a few of you might end up looking at this positive review somewhat quizzically if you've seen it - but ultimately, "goofy as hell space opera" is just something that ticks my boxes in a big way, and if not for its status as the most expensive foreign/independent film ever made and the disappointing box office it has seen so far, I'd be jumping at the chance the revisit this world in as many sequels and spin-offs as possible. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn't going to go down as a genuinely great movie, and realistically it never was - but that doesn't mean I can't love it.

4 stars

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