Review: Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets

Jane Fae's picture

So you enjoy the films of Luc Besson? Check. You’re a lifelong follower of bédé (that’s bande dessinée, aka French comic books)? Absolutely. And you’ve now seen the Fifth Element more times than it is healthy to admit to in polite company? Might have…

In which case, what are you waiting for? Because Valerian and the City of a 1,000 Planets has just two days more to run at the Broadway. Once it’s gone, it’s gone - and then you’ll regret it!

For even if you’d be hard put to name a single film director other than the inevitable Steven Spielberg, and you joyfully put aside your French text books after GCSE, there is still the minor matter that this latest Besson oeuvre reprises the excellent Fifth Element, with the added advantage that film tech and special effects are now some 20 years further on. Result: a film that from its outset immerses you totally in the world of city Alpha, as well as the humans and aliens that throng its crowded streets.

And if it lacks the louche badassness of Bruce Willis, isn’t quite as full-on funny as its precursor, it doesn’t fall far short.

Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are two “spatio-temporal” law officers tasked initially with recovering some exotic stolen goods. After a preliminary skirmish with some outlaws led by the corpulent Igon Siruss (John Goodman) , they bring them back to Alpha City, where Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) informs them of another crisis brewing: a dark zone at the heart of the city, fatal to all local life forms; and it is growing, will shortly destroy the city itself.

Oooer! Except: our heroes smell a rat, disobey orders, and eventually uncover a secret so dark that all human endeavour is, for a time, in question.

Besson does not do things by halves.

And even if you reckon you’ve heard this plot a thousand times before, the beauty is in the execution. From the sparky, wise-cracking relationship between Valerian and Laureline, to the in-your-face quirkiness of the worlds into which you are drawn: “it’s life, Jim: but not as we know it!”.

Which, of course, is what every intergalactic adventure ever, from Star Trek to Star Wars, is constantly trying to deliver. But ultimately, those blockbusters feel tethered to human experience: this does not.

There is humour: the scene where Laureline believes herself to have been captured, Princess Leila style, to satisfy the lusts of a gross alien emperor; only to discover, as he squeezes lemon over her body, that she is there to be eaten. And there is a return to themes and tropes that will be all too familiar to fans of the Fifth Element. The primacy of love as a driving force across the universe: an entire people, even after the near genocide of their race, who can still believe in peace and forgiveness.

Then there is the heroic, shape-shifting Bubble ( Rihanna), who, echoing the role of Diva Plavalaguna in the Fifth Element, interjects a touch of bathos into the proceedings.

Valerian is flawed, self-absorbed, sexist male: but with a whole raft of redeeming features that slowly emerge as the movie progresses. Laureline is just brilliant: another strong, kickass female hero of the sort we have been seeing much more of lately.

Practical, too. How can Valerian prove his love for her? “You don’t have to die for me: you just have to trust me.”

Although, do not in any way imagine that Laureline is just me-too addition to the growing list of feminist sci-fi icons: for as integral part of a duo that has its origins in 1967 she has, over the years, been inspiration for many. It’s just that, being French. The chances are you never heard of her before now.

There is fast-paced, intense action and – trademark Besson – guns. Plenty of guns!

Did I mention “quirky”? Yep! Though as always, with this director, there is, just below the surface, a disturbingly alien eroticism: something out of the ordinary; so deeply buried that the censors fail to notice and nod it through with a safe 12A.

The music is a fine combination of original score and classic tracks. And any film that opens with the entirety of Bowie masterpiece “Major Tom” has much to recommend it.

This is cult film in the making: but like many such films, a slow burner.

Four stars.