Comprehension can sometimes be disadvantageous, particularly when it comes to fantasy movies. Movies that we might have loved as kids don’t play as well as adults, since we’re aware of the cliches, the bad metaphors, the underlying problematic pieces. It’s easy to overlook how much of a creep Venkman is in Ghostbusters as a kid, but it really threatens to derail the whole thing as an adult (it’s still fun). There’s a pretty boring subplot about corporate theft and lawsuits going on in Jurassic Park that I didn’t comprehend one bit in 1996, but its absence made me enjoy the film more if anything (it’s still great). The Phantom Menace has plenty of eye candy for kids and some seriously interesting visual ideas, but doesn’t work as soon as you hit 12 or 13 and can start recognizing the stiltedness of the dialogue. It seemed that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might be more sensitive to these problems of over-comprehension than most, judging by headlines such as “Valerian Would Make a Great Silent Movie“. With a director like Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy), Valerian had a pedigree suggesting an ambitious and thrilling mess lay in wait, so I decided to put this “silent movie” bit to the test.
I live in Germany, and was on vacation for the one English showing of Valerian in the town I live in, so I went to see it in German. My German is awful (bad enough that the teller warned me while I was buying the ticket), so any nuance in the dialogue was entirely lost on me. I could follow the broad strokes of the plot, but any technical details were downright incomprehensible. But it turns out you don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten.
The movie is constantly distracted by its world, bouncing from set piece to set piece that have little to nothing to do with the main plot, and its all for the better. There is an overarching plot about a lost civilization trying to reclaim its riches, which is only notable for the homeworld that it shows, a beautiful beach-laden cartoon reminiscent of the best parts of Avatar (there were good parts!). But the majority of the film sees the space-cowboy agents, Valerian and Laureline, alternating hero roles to save each other from mostly unrelated hostile aliens. The design of the alien species and the fun it has building up the city of a thousand planets is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, in that it really does try to fill every frame, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in that it revels in the cartoonishness of it all, but it makes for a lot of fun. Some of the set pieces are crazily inventive, such as an opener taking place in an quasi-virtual marketplace where Valerian’s body gets stuck between two dimensions, or a wacko comic act involving a neanderthal king, a selection of dresses, and a lemon. There are certain pieces whose plot function I couldn’t follow due to the language barrier, but when they involve a submarine pirate re-enacting the “there’s always a bigger fish” bit from The Phantom Menace while heisting a jellyfish, maybe ignorance is best.
There’s also the excellent prologue sequence, showing the first contact and building of the interspecies city set to “Space Oddity”, which really shouldn’t work but does through sheer earnestness. The earnestness maybe gets a hand from the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Develingne, who can easily pass for teenagers despite being adults portraying adults, giving it the vibe of a Last Starfighter or Narnia-style preteen adventure. That being said, they have a weird sex thing going on and shoot a fair number of things, and Ethan Hawke plays a character named “Jolly the Pimp,” so maybe it’s not quite The Neverending Story. DeHaan doesn’t exactly light up the screen (and apparently does a Keanu Reeves impression in the English version, which sounds hilarious), but Develinge is a fantasting presence and adds a lot of necessary spark (they really are co-leads, despite only Valerian’s name being in the title). The movie goes on probably twenty minutes too long, and the resolution of the main arc is a total slog, but when Valerian just lets loose and gets weird, it’s one hell of a trip.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna
Rotten Tomatoes (51%)
Litmus test: If you like this stupid scene, you’ll find something to enjoy in Valerian. And I love this stupid scene. The eye shimmy with the sound effect at 0:44 kills me.