When Roy Batty gives his “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe” speech in Blade Runner, it’s not hard to imagine him having borne witness to the events of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Imagine that those much-touted off-world colonies were everything you could hope for, and more, and you get Alpha, this movie’s vast space station that houses thousands of intelligent species in biospheres as diverse as the population itself.
Think of Star Trek‘s United Federation of Planets if its aliens had been truly alien, rather than mostly humans with different shapes of putty on their foreheads. Like Trek, Valerian‘s strength is in its optimism, offered upfront with a “history of the future” look at how global cooperation on a space station ultimately turned intergalactic and transcended merely terrestrial alliances. In addition even to that, however, this is a story that hinges on the collateral damage of humanity’s star wars, rather than the (obligatory) action. The joy here is in seeing disparate species coexist, while having them fight and kill is a tragedy; there’s even a detour into the subject of alien sex slavery that arouses you with a Rihanna pole dance sequence, then chastises you for having been a willing customer (while still respecting the performance).
Though writer-director Luc Besson has provided an origin story for Alpha, he does not do the same for his protagonists, agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and fans of the original French comics know that’s probably just as well. It’s simply not relevant to the plot at hand that Laureline hails from way in Earth’s past; the movie’s busy overloading your senses already without bringing time travel into it. The (slight) downside is that when we meet the two, we really don’t know where they stand, but they seem to be in an early Moonlighting style phase in which Laureline hasn’t quite laid down the hard-and-fast “just friends” barrier, but simply doesn’t trust her colleague enough to get romantic…yet. Prepare for a dozen thinkpieces or thereabouts on why their relationship is problematic; Laureline’s pretty clearly just amused by Valerian’s come-ons, but they’d be considered harassment if she were a stranger, and a viewer coming to the material cold might not make any assumptions about a shared past.
Valerian the movie is based primarily on the sixth Valerian and Laureline comic book, Ambassador of the Shadows, which mostly removed Valerian himself from the action and featured Laureline venturing deeper and deeper into unexplored-by-humans areas of Alpha (called Point Central in the comics) in search of a kidnapped ambassador. Besson has given the material a polish – seriously, if you think his movies are generally high on visuals and weak in plot, they’re Dickens compared to Ambassador of the Shadows. Here, the Ambassador is replaced by a very shouty General (Clive Owen), who’s super-concerned about a mysterious zone of radioactive death at the heart of Alpha that appears to be growing. (Fear not: while this sounds as silly as The Fifth Element‘s big ball of space evil, it gets a better explanation later.)
The appeal of the story is still in the discovery of all the different worlds within Alpha, but Besson has made the mission more cause-and-effect: this has to happen to make another thing happen, which will reveal the true path to that third thing you need…as opposed to “then this happens, then this, then this.” We never quite get a sense of what Valerian and Laureline can do at the height of their powers, as they both get moments of badassery but aren’t totally consistent in the way they display it. Some will complain about the acting; I only found it stretching plausibility at one key moment, during which Laureline makes a pitch for the power of love. DeHaan plays things a lot like Keanu Reeves might, which makes sense within the world; he has seen this stuff all before and it’s not weird to him. Many movies like this will include a new character (usually a kid) through whose eyes we get introduced to the strangeness by proxy, but Besson does not offer that safety net; his future is truly inventive, and the characters who inhabit it take their insane, advanced technology and organic symbiosis for granted. As they would.
Of Besson’s sci-fi epics, I will call this better than The Fifth Element any day. There’s no Chris Tucker character to overwhelm all else, no infantilised fantasy girl contrived romance, and the threat is ultimately more relevant than abstract pure evil. But best of all, this a movie about genuine optimism for the future: we’re not left with the fear of looming apocalypse or Thanos/Darkseid waiting in the wings, but rather a sense that our best selves can overcome obstacles both personal and planet-threatening. Add that to visuals which will blow your mind, and you’ve got a winning combination.
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