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There's a part in Luc Besson's Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets where, in order to get somewhere fast, the MC bashes through a wall, swims, flies, jumps across energy-platforms, falls several stories, crashes through glass, and dives out an airlock into space. That's a good metaphor for the movie as a whole. First, think up the most bonkers way of getting from point A to point B; then, show it.

As such, it's not a plot-driven movie, nor does it really have much in the way of characters; the story is told through actions and visual world-building. And what a world it is! Besson tosses off enough ideas for several sci-fi films; memory-eating telepathic jellyfish, creatures that bathe in radioactive uranium and excrete rare metals, a gun that lets its wielder puppet the nervous system of whoever it hits, and a multi-level, multi-species bazaar that only exists in its own pocket dimension, just to name a few. And in spite of this, Valerian somehow still works. It could've been another The Fifth Element, a mess of tonal whiplash and dissonant plot points. But all the way through, it felt like a coherent, cohesive whole. It reminded me a little of Moebius comics (the original Valerian comic book was an influence on Moebius) like The Incal or The Airtight Garage. But the other point of reference for me was Terry Gilliam. Like a Gilliam movie, Valerian is sprawling, ambitious in scope, and not afraid to get campy or delve into absurd humor. And like those movies, beneath all the absurdities, it's utterly sincere at its heart.

There's a bit of light social commentary in the film about nations' unwillingness to take responsibility for the refugees their policies create, and about the importance of whistleblowing. Something I particularly liked about Valerian's writing was how it managed to sidestep the trope of the "noble savage". Yes, there's a race of wise aliens, with spooky powers and an endangered, vaguely Polynesian culture. They even have blue (well, blue-gray) skin, making Avatar comparisons inevitable. But in this story, they save themselves with their own technological savvy, re-creating their homeworld with the science they learned from other cultures and ultimately leaving the humans far behind. As a displaced people, they've had to be resourceful and adapt to their situation, and that gives them agency and depth.

The romance between Valerian and Laureline was the weakest part of the film, but it never became obnoxious or intrusive. And while the duo don't exactly set the screen on fire, they do make sense as a couple, purely based on how similar they are. Valerian is naive about how the world works; Laureline, somewhat less so. But both are creatures of impulse, more likely to act on their first feeling than stop to deliberate. And when Valerian seems to momentarily forget this and starts (lamely) protesting about his duty as a soldier, it's Laureline who reminds him to break the rules. The sort of blandly generic, youthful good looks that the lead couple possess actually works for a movie as visually nuts as Valerian... it's the equivalent of the blithe handshake that the human astronaut, in the film's wonderful opening montage, offers the half-dozen or so increasingly outlandish aliens. Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne may have all the personality of a soda cracker, but those crackers are served with a blazing hot chili.

I only have a couple of real complaints. I love the concept of Rihanna's character, but she/they deserved better writing, and more of an arc than "help the MCs realize how much they fancy each other, then die". Also, a couple of the alien depictions verge on being offensive stereotypes. Fr'ex, there's a species of dumb, people-eating aliens; they're dark-skinned, vaguely tribal, and the fact that they live in an off-limits area of Alpha brings to mind racist screeds about immigrants turning parts of cities into no-go zones. I'm sure that wasn't Besson's intention, but in a movie that stressed the value of multiculturalism and mutual respect, it was kind of jarring. It did set up the best sight gag in the movie, though, involving a lemon, a wide-brimmed hat, and a very hungry king.

It won't surprise me if Valerian doesn't do well with US audiences. For one thing, it's a completely earnest film, and utterly fails at putting up the kind of cynical, arch front that's become a mainstay of American entertainment. Add the fact that it's based on a French comic from the 1960s that most people have never heard of, and it's a tough sell. The ones who make it past those hurdles will be rewarded with a cracking sci-fi film. Unabashedly escapist, Valerian is a lovely and decadent ride through hyper-iridescent space opera.
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