‘Valerian’ is a nod to science fiction’s adventurous glory days

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Directed by Luc Besson

I get it. Luc Besson’s newest visual adventure, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (based on the French sci-fi comic series “Valerian and Laureline”), lacks an unpredictable story and commendable acting performances. But look back at a “Star Wars” movie and tell me the acting was great. Tell me you had no idea how “Avatar” would end. Great sci-fi isn’t always about showing off for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “Valerian,” which boasts the largest budget of any indie film ever (Besson crowd-funded the project and added a good deal of his own money to adapt the comics he read as a youngster), is a visually gorgeous undertaking, a feast for the eyes. Besson taps into the silliness and camp of sci-fi’s roots, when heroes fought villains in stunning environs with cool side characters and funny dialogue. That’s what “Valerian” is.

We meet soldiers Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delavigne) in the middle of a mission to retrieve some precious cargo from a slimy trader (voiced by John Goodman) in a busy marketplace. Their on-again, off-again chemistry is apparent from the start, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to understand. They’re partners on the job, but what about off the clock? While they figure that out, their mission takes them to Alpha, a space station with a population of a few million representing every corner of the known universe. It’s the hub of government and economy, and mostly everyone lives without conflict or war. Except, in one sector, an unknown invader has made a home, threatening to destroy the thriving community from the inside—but with every planet represented, who would want to destroy Alpha? Valerian and Laureline will try to find out, meeting a whole host of unique creatures along the way.

Visionary director Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Leon: The Professional”) crafts a wonderful world of colorful clouds, hundred-story shopping malls, chatty Howard Duck-looking gossips, and hedgehog-like things that poop pearls. Everywhere you look there’s something you’ve never seen before. For all its pomp and pizzazz, though, “Valerian” does lack a certain emotional appeal. The characters aren’t given much more than a name and a mission, but in that regard how is it different from so many of the sci-fi movies of the 80s and 90s? DeHaan and Delavigne are the heroes this summer desperately needed: cool, attractive twentysomethings kicking alien butt to save each other and impress each other. At some point audiences need to enjoy some escapism, ignore the anticlimactic ending, and appreciate the beauty of getting there. “Valerian” provided some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a while. It’s bound to be a cult classic. Until then, just let it transport you to somewhere amazing.

7.5/10

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