Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets is another film, much like The Dark Tower and this year’s Transformers movie, that I watched in a state of total and thorough confusion.
More than once, I asked myself, “What the Hell’s going on? Who are those people? Why are they blowing stuff up? Why are they shooting at each other? Who’s fighting who? Wait, is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is Valerian human or alien? WHAT’S GOING ON!?”
But I have to admit that it really didn’t bother me that Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets is an almost totally incoherent movie. After all, Valerian is a Luc Besson film and Besson has always been a supreme stylist above all else. That’s not to say that there’s nothing going on underneath the glossy visuals of a Besson film. It’s just to say that Besson is one of the rare directors where the subtext is usually less interesting than what’s happening on the surface.
Take Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It takes place in the far future, on Alpha. Alpha used to be the International Space Station but now it’s become a floating city where the inhabitants of a thousand different planets mix and socialize. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, one where the only disturbance comes from obnoxious human tourists who are all either extremely British or extremely American. Now, you could argue that Besson is making the argument that Alpha is meant to represent France but, if you spend too much time doing that, you’re going to miss just how amazingly Alpha has been visualized. It’s not just that everyone in the movie says that Alpha is home to a million different creatures. It’s that when the film travels to Alpha, you take one look at the screen and you believe it.
The film’s plot … well, this is where it gets difficult. It gets off to a truly brilliant beginning, with an intergalactic summit that takes place while David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays in the background. After that, the film’s visuals were so amazing that I have to admit that I was usually too busy taking it all in to pay much attention to what was actually going on. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are members of the special police force that has been created to protect Alpha and apparently the rest of the universe as well. Valerian has strange dreams about a primitive race of people who live on a beach. Laureline frets about Valerian’s recent proposal of marriage. They’ve both been assigned to track down a creature, the last of its species, that is currently being sold in a black market. It all links back to some secrets concerning their superior (Clive Owen) and a plot involving intergalactic refugees.
And, obviously, if you’re someone who insists on finding political subtext in every movie that you watch, there’s a lot to be found in Valerian‘s story about space refugees and government cover-ups. But, honestly, none of that is as interesting as the effort that Besson has put into making his flamboyant universe come to life. Valerian may be narratively incoherent but visually, it come close to proving Lucio Fulci’s theory of “absolute film.” The plot is less important than the film’s visuals and how you, as the viewer, reacts to those visuals. Even Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne seem to have been cast less for any acting ability they may have and more because the boyishly rugged DeHaan and the achingly pretty Delevingne both compliment the film’s visual scheme. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is cinematic pop art.