The silver screen goes dark, digital Earthlight fills the theatre, and the first notes of something familiar pierce the brilliant night. What song is that? I wonder, as spacecraft intrude upon the peaceful scene and offer scale to the awesome planetary drama. The song teases at my memory. It’s something I should know, something I used to listen to religiously. An old friend who invites a feeling of hope and wistfulness. Now we see the inside of the craft, the airlocks connecting, hands reaching across a gulf bigger than the emptiness of space. Human beings clasping each other proudly despite decades of geographic and political history, and suddenly I know what the song is, and I nearly slap myself for forgetting Valerian is a Luc Besson film. The song! It’s David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and with that knowledge comes a sudden wave of catharsis as more and more humans join the scene, building up the space station that will become the seed of the city of a thousand planets.
“Are you crying?” my wife asks. I snort back some errant moisture.
“No!” I squeak, but my voice breaks.
Yes, I’m dramatizing what actually happened. One does not weep in the first few minutes of a breakfast matinee. One does not go into a science fiction film expecting to be moved by something minutes into the movie. Even Leon the Professional had to set up that New York family and the pitiful waif to make that insane Gary Oldman massacre work. I suppose my excuse is that I just had a surprisingly lovely chicken waffle sandwich before the scene opened, and the curly fries were also delicious. But I assure you, there is a reason for my silliness. Please, do read on.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a revisit to the sort of science fiction that made Luc Besson famous, sort of like the Fifth Element redux. It’s based on a comic series that first inspired the director, about the agents Valerian and Laureline who work for Alpha, and interstellar city made up of a thousand different sentient species. The agents are sent to retrieve a valuable resource, the last of its kind, and are thrown into a spectacular romp through all the different worlds that make up Alpha on a quest to protect the city from a mysterious threat. This is the stuff scifi orgasms are made of, really, and the sort of canvas legendary director Luc Besson is so good at filling with movie magic. I’ve previously waxed ad nauseum about Dane DeHaan, and I was pleased to see the hypnotically confident Cara Delevingne given room to flex. Rhianna was mesmerizing, as always. A review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will commonly lead with Luc Besson trademarks. Visual spectacle, check! Over-the-top cinematic sequences, check! But considering the hype hangover reviewers are expressing, I think people miss the big thing about Besson films overall.
What I’m talking about can be summed up by that incredible opening sequence. The space station Alpha came about from cooperation between cultures, no matter how unfamiliar, weird, or downright slimy they were. And together, they accomplished amazing things. It is fitting then that both Valerian and Laureline are accomplished at navigating alien cultures, whether by diplomacy, compassion, understanding, or ironic flick of the sword. By their hands, they’re able to investigate a crime decades in the making, and do the right thing in the end. The plot wraps up not with an explosion or visual spectacle, but with a quiet show of respect between lovers and a gentle drift into the vastness of space. It’s a message that should be clear: none of this splendor is possible if we keep subjugating others for our own ends. But working together, celebrating differences, we can be AWESOME.
Now, Forbes can go on about how Valerian borrows from Avatar, how corny the dialogue is between Valerian and Laureline. Hollywood Reporter thinks this is a straight up rip from Star Wars. But aren’t both of them missing the point? What I’m really glad to take away from Valerian isn’t anything new or the amazing visuals, but a reminder of the past. At one time, people made scifi to show us what was possible. Valerian reminds me of what Besson films celebrate, from La Femme Nikita to Leon the Professional. It’s about going on, and building a future where we can walk into proudly. It means confessing your affections in the corniest way possible, it means throwing yourself through walls in dedication to something, and it means offering diplomacy through a quiet gesture of respect instead of a planet-changing battle.
Is this the best Luc Besson film ever? Ehhh… not really. But considering his best was made while fucking around during the Fifth Element delay, let’s just take Valerian for what it is. It’s a blast from the scifi past, and it’s inadvertently brought something back that I, at least, have missed for a long time.