photo by Vikram Gounassegarin/courtesy of STX Entertainment
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets ★★½ Now playing
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the latest sci-fi extravaganza from famed French director Luc Besson, aims to be the cinematic equivalent of a perfect dessert soufflé: rich and sugary-sweet yet light as air. With a budget of about $180 million, it’s said to be both the most expensive European film and the most expensive independent film ever made. Besson saturates every frame (or every gigabyte) with wacky aliens and design concepts, and every big action set piece zips along at a clip just shy of incomprehensible. In terms of sheer scale, it far outdoes its stylistic predecessor, Besson's nineties classic The Fifth Element. Unfortunately, it lacks the hint of emotional resonance that made that film more than the sum of its many parts.
Valerian's emptiness would be less disappointing if many of its parts weren't as good as they are. The best comes early as intergalactic super-spies Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) chase a MacGuffin across a desert planet where everyone is plugged into a virtual reality "Big Market." The action unfolds in both dimensions at once, showcasing Besson's gift for orchestration while deftly uniting the bifurcated fantasies of Silicon Valley: a Burning Man-style frontier playground beyond society's rules crosscut with the purely digital world of unrestricted capital flows.
It should be clear from the trailers that story and character take a backseat to hyperactive episodes loosely organized around a cover-up of the destruction of a peaceful alien utopia. The next target is Alpha, a massive space station populated by representatives of thousands of different races and cultures. American audiences used to the grimdark worldview of recent Hollywood blockbusters may find Besson's angst-free endorsement of this Euro-liberal cosmopolitan fantasy as a fun, exciting place to live either refreshing or naive. The film's irrepressible silliness doesn't allow us to take its political convictions very seriously, however, as the victimized aliens, with their tribal aesthetics and their pet aardvarks that shit magic energy pearls, are too much like a parody of the Na’vi in Avatar to inspire significant sympathy for real-world refugees.
For all Valerian’s visual busyness, few images leave much of an impression. Like the comics on which it’s based, the film works by recombining familiar sci-fi tropes, not inventing new ones. If you're satisfied with some witty action scenes and lots of CG eye candy, then Valerian should have what you're looking for. Everything else has been crowded out by the blockbuster format, which, for all its budgetary inflation, still can't afford the movie any space to breathe.