So, here’s a philosophical question to keep you up at night: does a movie need a good story to be, you, know, good? Or compelling characters, even? We’re all sophisticated consumers, and we know that cinema is an amalgamation of so many different elements, threads, arts and structures, all (hopefully) working in concert to produce an enjoyable final result. And the thing is, even one or more of those elements fails, that doesn’t necessarily scupper the whole enterprise. A dud performance – say, Eric Cantona in Elizabeth, to pull an example out of the air – can be overlooked. A score working at cross-purposes with the mood – Ladyhawke, for example – can be willfully tuned out. A dud special effect can be forgiven, especially when budget and age are taken into consideration.
Story, however, is king, or so we’re told, but even that received wisdom is not universally true. Nobody would ever watch Koyaanisqatsi if that was the case and, besides, everyone seems to have a different idea of what constitutes “story” anyway (hint: it’s more than just plot). And compelling characters – the very reason we’re attracted to classical cinema, to empathise with likable leads overcoming obstacles and so on – fall under the same rubric; they’e a common feature, but not a universal one.
Which is an extremely roundabout way to say that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the wildly ambitous space opera from French filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has a dud story, depending from two profoundly uninteresting lead characters, but it’s a good time anyway.
Based on the long-running science fiction comic series, Valerian and Laureline, by (writer) Pierre Christin and (artist) Jean-Claude Mézières Valerian sees Dane DeHaan as the titular 28th century space-ranging secret agent and Cara Delevingne as Laureline, his more competent sidekick/love interest, dispatched to Alpha, a massive space station home to hundreds of different environments and thousands of different alien species, all living together in relative harmony and exchanging knowledge and culture.
We’re introduced to this idea in a bravura opening sequence set to Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as we see Alpha accrete around the International Space Station as more and more modules are added and visitor upon visitor are greeted by the stations crew – first humans from various nations, and then aliens, and then more aliens, each weirder and more striking than the last, each greeted with the same welcoming handshake. It’s a really wonderful bit of visual storytelling, an unmistakable statement of thematic intent, and – unfortunately – the high point of the film.
Then we meet our heroes, and realise that our journey through this wonderful universe is going to be guided by the rather fey Dane DeHaan trying his best to be a roguish space hero in the Han Solo/Star-Lord mold, which he is pretty much incapable of pulling off convincingly, plus Cara Delevigne struggling with the film’s weird sexual politics (Valerian keeps asking Laureline to marry him. We’re given no background on their relationship, so it’s hard to say whether this is meant to be romantic or straight up sexual harassment). The clunky dialogue doesn’t help – The Fifth Element was no great shakes in the repartee department, either, but an engaged and charismatic cast (remember when Bruce Willis was both those things?) elevated the material. Dan and Cara, whatever their other talents, don’t have the chops for that kind of heavy lifting.
Happily, their chief function isn’t really narrative, but rather scenic – they’re really just in this thing to give us a reason to bounce from set to set, to setpiece to setpiece, and if you’re willing to ignore the rote plot and regrettable attempts at banter, you’re in for a heck of a time. As a filmmaker, Besson remains an almost unparalleled visual stylist, and he’s operating at the absolute apex of his abilities here. There are moments in this film that are simply jaw-dropping: a beautiful beach world populated by what are essentially alien supermodels, a sprawling alien bazaar that exists in a parallel dimension, a sewer system so vast it hosts a population of leviathans, a madcap foot chase through a number of truly alien and amazing neighbouring environments in the teeming space station, and on and on. You can feel Besson’s gleeful desperation to throw as much colour and spectacle at us as he can, all but screaming “Look at this! And this! And this!” It’s intoxicating.
That the film doesn’t work as a whole is almost besides the point, it’s just so much fun to look at. Ignore the plot and drink in the moments – that way you get to enjoy Ethan Hawke’s space cowboy pimp and Rihanna’s shapeshifting alien dancing girl without worrying about why we’ve stopped the movie to spend time with them. Think of it not so much as a movie but a slideshow of someone’s holiday in Luc Besson’s teenage brain. Indeed, I would pay cash money to see the entire project re-cut as a mockumentary travelogue of Alpha – something along those lines might be the thing’s optimal form.
Valerian is unarguably a very flawed film, but not fatally so – what it does well, it does better than anything else that’s come along in a good while. As an unbridled, madcap explosion of colour and imagination, it’s unbeatable. Just imagine what could have been if its narrative verve matched its visual grandeur.