Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

(12A) ★★★

THE latest piece of out-there fantasy filmmaking from director Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy) is far from perfect but nonetheless is his most ambitious and visually stunning effort to date.

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Over centuries humans have gone from working together as earthly nations to literally shaking hands with all manner of exploratory alien creatures. This leads to the formation of Alpha, a massive intergalactic metropolis where life forms of all shapes and sizes from a thousand different planets live together in harmony sharing knowledge and enjoying prosperity. However, when a powerful force threatens to destroy the very existence of Alpha, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are sent on a mission to root out the threat but soon discover there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Besson’s sleekly designed epic is a fast-paced visual feast, if not exactly an intellectually nourishing one, at an imaginative buffet that at the very least always has something darting across the screen to keep you engaged.

It’s an entertainingly madcap hodgepodge of both original ideas and things borrowed, gleaned and soaked up from other sci-fi fantasy and spread across an indulgent 137 minute runtime. The kind of film that will burst out with a random scene of Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien stage performer and it feels like a natural part of the world.

The space opera of Star Wars, the bustling alien world-building of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Besson’s own The Fifth Element, and the playful dialogue so in-vogue in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise are all poured into this concoction along with a myriad of fresh ideas and visuals that engage in the foreground or effectively populate the landscape. Comparisons could also be drawn to The Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending though this is far more knowing and has far less of the cringe-worthy, po-faced silliness of that film.

At times it relies on too much exposition, partly as a flawed necessity to get you up to speed with rules and functionalities of the worlds that it presents and partly as a means to cut narrative corners. Its messy nature is almost as much a strength as it is a weakness — a kind of refreshing, devil-may-care, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach that might not be entirely cohesive but brings with it a kind of bonkers charm that’s never boring.

The script doesn’t quite have the dramatic clout to pull off some of the heavier thematic intentions, such as the arrogance of human dominance over entire other alien species. The romance strand that runs through the film doesn’t wholly ring true, either, mainly because of a lack of romantic chemistry between the two leads. But nevertheless DeHaan and Delevingne are fun to watch together, playing off on one another well, chucking back and forth jibes and double entendres as they take it in turns to save each other.

It feels almost like too many ideas for any one film to contain; if there is to be sequels, it may function even better as part of a larger franchise whole. But what can’t be doubted is its sense of imagination and spectacle that fully utilizes the idea of modern visual effects to realise a world that would otherwise not be possible. For all its flaws, it feels like it comes from an inventive mind here given a gargantuan canvas on which he admirably and consistently commits to his vision.