Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a visually spectacular science-fiction adventure from prolific French writer/director/producer Luc Besson (among many other credits, he wrote/directed/co-produced 1990’s La Femme Nikita and co-created both the Transporter and Taken franchises), is the kind of film that reminds me why I love going to the movies. It is one of the most visually delightful films I have seen in a very long time.
Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan from The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Sergeant Laureline (Suicide Squad’s Cara Delevingne) are special operatives investigating a mysterious attack on Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets. The plot is a little more complex than that, but a description of it is completely unnecessary. The story and characters were good enough to keep me engaged in the action and the performances are exactly what the material demanded. However, you don’t see movies like this for their plot or characterizations. Film is first and foremost a visual medium and Valerian uses that aspect of the cinema to its absolute fullest.
I have seen a lot of movies in my life and it is rare that I see something I’ve never seen before. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is full of original sights. The most impressive is the Big Market. It is a marketplace that can only be seen by using special glasses. It is a marvel of creativity. The way Besson uses this space and then cuts back and forth between what Valerian sees through the glasses and what it looks like to the characters who are not wearing the glasses is absolutely brilliant. He maps out the space in a way that makes it easy for viewers to understand where the characters are and what they are doing. This is a pretty impressive feat considering how difficult it must have been to create this sequence.
The city of a thousand planets is also quite the sight with various species all having their own space in the city of Alpha. The way these different areas pop out next to each other is quite stunning. I saw the film in 3D which is the best use of the format I have seen since Avatar. The extra couple of dollars it costs to see it in 3D are worth it just for the amazing backgrounds. If you are going to see Valerian, 3D is almost certainly the way to go. Also, try to see it on the biggest screen you can.
Valerian feels like a throwback to the science-fiction stories of the 1950s. While the story itself is a bit derivative (it is based on the French comic series Valerian and Laureline that was created in 1967 and has influenced, among other science-fiction media, Besson’s cult-favorite 1997 film The Fifth Element), the presentation feels like something completely new. Despite some relatively subtle political commentary (aspects of the story could be a reaction to the current conversation about immigration), this is the very definition of a fun, escapist, 130 minutes (minus the end credits) at the movies.
Part of the reason I go to the movies is to see things I could never (or would never) see in real life. With Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson has created dazzling worlds like you could only find in a dream. That alone makes this film worth seeing. Add in a decent screenplay and this is the most fun experience I’ve had at the movies all year.
4½ out of 5
Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian
Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline
Clive Owen as Commander Arun Filitt
Sam Spruell as General Okto-Bar
Herbie Hancock as Defense Minister
Rihanna as Bubble
Ethan Hawke as Jolly
Written (Screenplay) and Directed by Luc Besson