In a French cinema oriented around a tradition of art house reverence, director and writer Luc Besson is forming an auteurial presence fixed in commerciality and entertainment. When a filmic standard matching “Madame Bovary” — a soft melodrama bathed in luxury and romance — was being lauded in the early ‘90s, Besson was releasing “La Femme Nikita” — a dynamic action film replete with secret police and assassins.
In 1997, Besson directed and co-wrote “The Fifth Element” — a yammering English-language feature plopped in a futuristic cosmos where shoot-outs and comedy reigned supreme. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — which Besson directed and wrote based on the influential French comic series “Valérian and Laureline” — also aims to woo audiences with spectacle. Starring Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Rihanna and a deluge of animated aliens, “Valerian” is a big budget film in every right (sporting a $150 million price tag to match).
But in a genre that holds a predilection for computer generated imagery (CGI) — often to disappointing effect — this film does little to distinguish itself from the trend of eye candy science fiction films, ones with underlying substance that gets subverted by a reliance on the entertainment of flashy visuals. “Valerian” prioritizes world-building above all else.
Perhaps as a result, the dialogue is, frankly, terrible — a trainwreck of relatively emotionless conversations and wincingly expected one-liners. Dialogue that should have been flirtatious or touching was overwrought or clunky. Only the novel, flamboyant visuals encasing it bring the movie back from the brink of a crash landing.
In fact, those visuals shine. Besson’s commitment to making his computer-generated world as rich as possible results in a staggering 2 hours and 17 minutes of intricacy unparalleled in many recent films.
Recall the wonder of “Blade Runner” — the detailed city with its neon-lit tangle of towers and hovering cars emerging from the smog, its compellingly imaginative rainbow spectrum of David Bowie-esque costumes and makeup. Remember how addictingly overwhelming it felt to watch that volume of futuristic inventiveness whiz by all at once — that degree of fast-paced city life represents only a small slice of the intergalactic space station in the world Besson has created.
Other worlds and species are conceived in staggering number and detail — there’s the space station’s underwater biosphere filled with herds of lumbering, lizard-like giants whose distinct characteristics are the gloppy, luminescent, memory-completing jellyfish residing on their backsides. There’s a neighborhood of the station filled only with seemingly-infinite stretches of golden computer chips operated on by tiny, spindly robots. There’s the realms beyond the space station brimming with beautiful planets and Star Trek-esque vessels locked in spatial combat.
In the first five minutes of the film alone, a spliced blitz of background information is presented, showing the history of the space station and how it came to house its enormous diversity of alien species. In brief flashes, a lineage of aging commanding officers is shown shaking the hands of dozens of drastic alien forms, many of which were created specifically for this sequence, never to appear again — a testament to Besson’s dedication to world-building.
Besson is a master of CGI vision, more deserving of indulging in the form than possibly any other director working today — he’s known for the absurd, and with CGI you can easily make the absurd out of pixels.
It’s true that the visuals sometimes overwhelm the storytelling in “Valerian,” but it is not a film that can be pigeon-holed into the plotless, asinine action adventure trope. There are subtleties — in the source material, in the casting decisions, in the director’s Frenchness.
Even while consciously reaching for a multiplex, Hollywood gloss, Besson’s filmmaking holds a twinge of something perceptibly foreign, something that’s hard to put your finger on. Look at “Transformers: The Last Knight” thematically, the movie is categorically standard sci-fi action-adventure fare — tentpole battles in which good guys win and bad guys lose. “Valerian” contains a less distinct evil and a more imperfect good. It’s about the fallibility of our perceptions, how truth can be warped, and how coexistence and empathy are the desired outcomes. In short, it’s a more graceful and realistic look at the role of combat in our lives, however abstracted it is by its far-future setting, explosive action scenes, and staple of bizarre characters and physical impossibilities.
In this sense, Besson achieves something of a positive dichotomy — “Valerian” fronts high-octane visuals and a gentle, un-imperious takeaway.