Luc Besson (director), Julien Rey (editor), Thierry Arbogast (cinematographer)
Luc Besson (screenplay) from Valerian and Laureline Pierre Christin
Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer (cast)
Released July 21, 2017 (US), July 26, 2017 (France)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens with a hopeful, tongue in cheek montage of the history of space exploration that segues into the far flung future it inhabits set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It’s a well worn kind of irony that more or less sums up the film as a whole. It’s an upbeat sounding song with “space” in the title that seems perfect for a transition from stock footage to a series of different nations’ astronauts welcoming each other in space, but is actually a lyrically Gothic tale that speaks as much to isolation and the ultimate sacrifice of the narrator as it does the higher impulses behind space exploration.
Whether director Luc Besson intended that contradiction or if it’s an accidental consequence of superficiality is unclear because of the film’s consistent inability to reconcile the glitz and glam of the spectacle it lavishes onto the audience with its own Gothic underpinnings. Besson repeatedly telegraphs that there are lingering vestiges of the darkest truths of the last two centuries of human history doggedly clinging to this nominally utopian future, but it never manages to coalesce into a meaningful, toothsome reconciliation with the ravages of imperialism, colonialism, or capitalism. Nor can it achieve escape velocity from the limitations of Besson’s thoroughly white European gaze that have plagued his ambitions most notably in Lucy, Colombiana, and From Paris With Love.
It’s a depressing and baffling observation to make about Valerian in particular, because this is, much like Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, the film that Besson has been dreaming of making for his entire career. When his first attempt to get the film rights to Valerian and Laureline, the French comics that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on, failed Besson transformed the project into The Fifth Element, probably his most widely acclaimed and beloved film. Allegedly, Besson pillaged Jodorowsky’s failed Dune adaptation to build the backbone of The Fifth Element, so theoretically Valerian should have soared with Besson finally having access to the source material he’s chased his entire career, but instead he feels somehow far less engaged with Valerian than he was on The Fifth Element.
Such is the Gothic nature of Besson himself that while his influence and status as a visionary are unquestionable, the limitations of that vision have been, and likely always will be, painfully clear. Besson unmistakably projects a desire to renounce various prejudices and the history of colonialist violence his native France and other Western powers have and still do perpetrate across the globe, but his unwillingness to expand his own imagination or step back from his own whiteness in this pursuit is writ large across Valerian in ways that almost have to be considered a plea for help or a cryptic call for the mainstream to embrace and elevate genuinely Afrofuturist science fiction.
Where it appears most obviously is in the alien refugees from the disappeared planet Mul whose fate is the central mystery of the film. Valerian opens with the last few minutes of their civilization, a bucolic Bahamian inspired world of vast beaches and gigantic conch shells immolated by a meteor shower of the wreckage of massive ships coming down on their heads. The aliens are primitive in technology, impossibly tall, lithe, sparsely clothed, wearing jewelry clearly inspired by several real world African cultures. Yet their skin is a radiant mother of pearl. Besson goes to great lengths to paint them as the victims of an imperialist war machine that saw them as nothing more than collateral damage who close a massive technological gap in the span of mere decades through their own ingenuity alone, but he cannot elevate them out of being completely typical noble savages or gift them with a vision of beauty free of patriarchal, white supremacist ideals.
They’re painstakingly crafted, perfect victims to assuage the conscience of a moderately liberal white audience. They’re also the inescapable foundation on which the entire film rests. Focusing critique on Dane DeHaan’s indifferent delivery, complete lack of chemistry with co-star Cara Delevigne, or the absence of a coherent arc for his character yields no tangible benefits for charting a course for better, more impactful cinematic science fiction. A fully engaged, magnetic DeHaan with a plausible emotional arc who could drive audience investment in a romance between him and Delevigne’s Laureline would have done nothing but paper over the inherent flaws of Besson’s halfhearted progressivism with a high gloss sheen.
Delevigne, for her part, appears to have decided at some point during production to make her own fun and appears to be in a completely different movie being shot in parallel whenever she isn’t the focus of attention. Delevigne is a consummate model throughout, never losing her poise or meeting a room she couldn’t strut through in bulky, boob contoured space armor. Besson and editor Julien Rey wisely focus on Delevigne’s face as the guide for clarifying what the audience should be thinking or feeling at any given point to make up for the bare bones dialogue and DeHaan’s complete lack of inflection, but any time the film wanders or wavers, a quick search of the frame for Delevigne and her relentless mugging will always make up for it.
Ultimately, a critique of the acting and dialogue feels academic, because no amount of polish can rectify the underlying issues with the film’s overtly colonialist gaze, conceiving of the other–which always appears in some variation of African coding–as either a pitiable, exotified noble savage or an outright subhuman savage. Even Rihanna’s brief cameo as a shape shifting alien exploited as a sex worker falls prey to this same construction, briefly uttering that she’s an “illegal immigrant” to the station and later dying in Valerian’s arms after having saved him and Laureline from spear shaking, loincloth wearing aliens. Given the recent spate of high profile film adaptations coming from the Franco-Belgian comics scene that have been unsparing in their critique of France and European society as a whole (Persepolis, Blue is the Warmest Color, and Snowpiercer), it’s doubly disappointing to see Besson fall back into his worst tendencies rather than rise to the occasion as his peers have. Especially given the potential for Valerian to have occupied a complimentary status as a critique of post racial Utopianism to Snowpiercer’s withering critique of ethnonationalism’s rise in Europe as a direct consequence of the mass displacements rooted in intensifying climate change.
The visual splendor of Valerian is its highest virtue, a fact that ought not be able to rescue any film on its own given the massive leaps in technology in the last twenty years, but the ambition, wonder, and sheer joy that infuses Valerian is a sharp rebuke of what the superhero dominated box office has reduced visual effects to in contemporary summer blockbusters. Marvel movies produce homogeneous design fiction with all the soullessness of a portfolio designed to attract recruiters for military contractors. DC film’s don’t seem to want to rise beyond interpolating the movement of actors into sequences that haven’t grown in any tangible ambition or scope since the Wachowski sisters and John Gaeta innovated the concept for The Matrix trilogy. Michael Bay films flood the screen with illegible, whirling chrome offset by an endless supply of dollar store fireworks.
Valerian, in contrast, zooms through dozens of awe inspiring worlds that breathe real life into the film’s title, but it also allows itself a liberal amount of fun in executing its futuristic technologies in a way that is even more fresh and engaging than The Fifth Element’s cheeky contraptions were. The film’s first big set piece is a vast bazaar on a desert planet that exists in a different dimension from the one Valerian inhabits, necessitating goggles tuned to its vibrational wavelength and gloves allowing people to manipulate objects within that space. The resulting visual is split between the claustrophobic, neon washed market that the tourists and inhabitants of that dimension experience and the external view of a bunch of people wearing VR headsets and gloves wandering through a vast, empty desert.
The hilarity of the disconnect is mined to full effect when a chase sequence is split between what Valerian is seeing as he’s trying to escape his viewers and what Laureline sees: Valerian bumbling and fumbling around in VR goggles with a box strapped to his arm like a hapless tech blogger test driving the latest prototype in the desperate struggle to give virtual reality its big comeback in the age of the smartphone and tablet. The semiotics produce a sly, hilarious poke at the most absurd end of current consumer electronics and the emergent culture around video games as a spectator sport. It’s the one brief moment where Valerian manages to recapture the zeitgeist in the way that Jean Paul Gaultier elevated Besson’s oeuvre in The Fifth Element before it sinks back into being a film that is adjacent to many things without ever managing to carve out a complete identity of its own.
Valerian is ultimately a reminder of the existence of a Hollywood parallel to the one that has almost been completely subsumed by superheroes and their imitators. It’s a deeply flawed Hollywood too in love with its self flagellating savior complex to produce genuinely revolutionary or confrontational science fiction, that much is abundantly clear in not just Valerian, but Avatar, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the dozens of other productions that attempt to stake out post colonial narratives. It’s also, jarringly, the iteration of Hollywood that consistently strives to find joy everywhere and inject its work with color and texture beyond what the real world can offer. It’s a set of contradictions that no body of work both embodies quite like Luc Besson’s, and until A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther debut, remains the best remedy for the superhero monolith at the box office. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is both the poison and the remedy.