Luc Besson’s Space Oddity opens with a suitably inspirational opening as the story of Alpha (the eponymous City Of A Thousand Planets) is told through an evolutionary montage which nods to both Kubrick and Zemeckis.
En route to Alpha to begin his next mission, Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) experiences a vision of the destruction of the idyllic planet Mül. Shaking off the vision, he and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) embark on a mission to recover a rare creature which has been stolen by some interdimensional gangsters. Meanwhile, back on Alpha, a danger is growing, a malignant and mysterious presence at the heart of the station which threatens the peace and stability of the thousands of races which use the station to trade and share their knowledge.
Luc Besson has clearly found all the optimism, hopefulness and wonder JJ Abrams decided his version of “Star Trek” didn’t need and has crammed three films’ worth of it into “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”. It begins with a beautiful and gloriously affirmative timeline of human space exploration, emphasising its important role in breaking down international and, eventually, interstellar enmity and there’s an abundance of imagination on display as we’re shown dizzyingly different parts of this colourful cosmos. From interdimensional tourist traps to amusingly weaponised motion-capture devices, the ideas pile up thick and fast as one fascinating concept breathlessly follows another. Action packed and often funny, it retains the energy of Besson’s other seminal sci-fi work, “The Fifth Element”, but strikes a slightly less comedic and surreal tone, as befits a sci-fi action adventure centred around a conspiracy to conceal a historic act of genocide.
That the film can tackle such a dark subject matter without sacrificing the wonder and lightness is a testament to the way its crafted. As a visual and kinetic experience, “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” beats just about anything else 2017 has offered us.
It’s a shame, then, that the leads are slightly miscast and lack a real chemistry. Dane DeHaan is a fine actor but he struggles to convince as a dashing outer space secret agent and although Cara Delevingne gives one of her best performances that I’ve seen, it’s still not quite enough to really sell the dynamic between Laureline and Valerian, especially with a script this clunky. There’s a refreshingly Rodenberry-esque approach to the wondrous technology on display in that rarely do people stop to explain why they’re using things which would be everyday items to them, but there is an achingly clumsy exposition dump from Valerian’s onboard computer as they approach Alpha for the (audience’s) first time. The costumes for this movie are great: Clive Owen is resplendent in his blinged-up M Bison cosplay as the shady Commander who has something to hide and if you’ve ever had a fantasy involving Rihanna, chances are she wears that very outfit in this movie.
Breathtaking sci-fi vistas, innovative action scenes, spectacular special effects and pseudo-mystical alien shenanigans, “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” is everything the “Star Wars” prequels could have and should have been: thrilling, kinetic, driven by a dark conspiracy but never dull and helmed by a director who doesn’t struggle to get a good performance out of Natalie Portman.
Sadly, this movie – much like “Jupiter Ascending” before it – has been summarily rejected at the American Box Office, lending to screeds and screeds of articles decrying it as a ‘flop’, a ‘bomb’ and a failure. Given its overall influence has been waning for years, it’s becoming more and more absurd that we lend so much critical credence to the box office tastes of a nation which elected a bloviating hatemonger as its commander in chief, embraced Lucas’ execrable prequels to the tune of over $1billion and continues to routinely embrace Michael Bay’s “Transformers” and Pixar’s “Cars” with little or no compunction. Even the very welcome success of “Wonder Woman” has become weighted down by a totemic fetishisation which is now seeing it hagiographically extolled as a ‘Best Picture’ contender. In a country culturally at war with itself, what hope is there for a fluffy piece of sci-fi fantasy like “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”?
Hopefully, the international box office will be more receptive to this thoughtful but fun sci-fi extravaganza because cinema needs the explosive imagination of the Bessons and the Wachowskis as much as it needs the earnestness of the likes of Christopher Nolan. Escapist, upbeat pulpy sci-fi is a rarity these days and despite (or maybe because of) its flaws, Mertmas and I utterly adored it.