Jul 26, 2017

Review: "Valerian" is a Mind-Bending Blockbuster Full of Sci-Fi Charm

Scene from Valerian
If there is one popular trend in Summer 2017, it's that sci-fi is "boring." Okay, films like War for the Planet of the Apes aren't dull, but they are often burdened with a heavy purpose that makes them a tad dark and miserable. It makes one wonder what the alternative is for a season that is supposed to be joyous and upbeat. By some miracle, director Luc Besson answered the call with his impulsive, silly, and visually stunning adaptation Valerian. Free of any extended universes or end of the world premises, the film is a throwback to the type of fun space adventures that films like Star Wars thrived on. It's far from perfect and it takes a certain leap of faith to get on its radar. However, Besson continues to prove why he is a lopsided genius with a film that is fun, unique, and a perfect antidote to this oddly bleak summer of movies. 
The story itself is a concept so ambitious that to have done it with practical effects would've cost billions (with a "B") to make even the least used settings pop with life. In some ways, Besson is the heir apparent to James Cameron in that he uses special effects to enhance a story instead of using them in place of more convenient practical effects. His world in Valerian takes place predominantly on Alpha: the city of 1,000 planets. While the film fails to reach half of them, what Besson does get around to is probably some of the finest technical work in any film this year. Within the same frame, a character can crash through the wall of a warehouse, land in a field of orbs, then run through another wall to a world of flowers, then into an underwater world. In some ways the geography is incomprehensible. The best part is that Besson knows this and doesn't care to explain the hard stuff.
He also grounds the story with two government agents: Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne), whose chemistry is the make-or-break in the deceptively high concept story. They are a couple in teamwork and in intimacy, reflecting the struggles to communicate in both ways while exploring the hierarchy of the sexes. It's not nearly as pretentious as that sounds, as Valerian struggles to find character growth that will make Laureline say yes to his marriage proposal. Of course, work gets in the way of their planned beach trip. It constantly does. The film doesn't take too many breaks in the action, choosing to counterbalance the casual coolness of these characters into a world full of innovative and popping visuals. 
To call what follows weird would be an understatement. Still, Besson is up to the challenge of throwing the viewer into every world imaginable, if even for a split second. It overstimulates when balanced with the action, which is just as exciting on its own merits. Early on, Valerian's character completes a heist scene while existing in two worlds at once. It only seems coincidental that his deep, deadpan delivery of his lines feels reminiscent of Keanu Reeves then. Still, he seems both too familiar with the world around him and still impressed by the potential of what lies ahead. There is a sense of wonder and adventure that is thankfully replicated in the special effects. There's even a great Cabaret reference in which Rihanna (as a shape shifting creature) performs a strip tease that sees her change outfits in the blink of an eye. The editing in these sequences alone are dazzling, capturing a complexity to what the audiences understand of cinema that it comes across as revolutionary or, better yet, fun.
The one caveat is that Besson's impulsive and wondrous eye is so silly that it's hard to see more casual fans take this movie seriously. It's full of coy humor and odd creature designs, and the rapid transitions is far from what audiences who even saw the superior Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 could be ready for. Besson has created a definitive experience for sci-fi fans who love big films that explore the potential of the medium as opposed to telling an overarching story. At the heart of the film is something simple: a love story. What the epic plans to show is how they trust each other and what needs to be worked on. Considering that they also feel like two of the coolest agents in the universe, it only makes the movie go down smoother. 
It should be noted that while the film is largely driven by action, the third act does get bogged down with certain exposition issues. It's not enough to derail the film, but it shifts the tone from fun to a bit serious. Still, what the film has to say about the citizens of Alpha serves as a great parallel to modern conflicts regarding international relations on Earth. It's a message so earnest and bald that it may bother some. Even with the tonal issues, Besson has secretly woven it into the plot so subtly that it actually works. Everyone has a happy ending, and the adventures through Alpha become a reassuring tale not only for the characters, but for audiences wanting to see something new. Much like how Lucy redesigned the way that audiences looked at brain power, Valerian at least proves that special effects have the power to do more than cut corners. It can build amazing and new worlds the likes of which haven't been seen before.
Of course, it's ironic that Valerian's source material inspired the films that it feels most like. Anyone who has seen Star Wars will be quick to nitpick familiar iconography. In some ways, its familiarity is a gift and a detriment that show how far the sci-fi genre has come, but also how much has been elevated because of the impact that "Valerian and Laureline" had during its original run. The film is at times sloppy and a bit too silly. However, it's one of the most unashamed and fun sci-fi movies of the year, and it will definitely give audiences wanting to see something new a lot of it. The only disappointment is that Besson's film had to end before all 1,000 of those planets were explored. Considering its box office intake, it does seem shaky that there will ever be a sequel. Even if that doesn't happen, Valerian can at least have the honor of being one of the best cult films of the decade with its silly, pulpy fun and great performances by DeHaan and Delevigne. There's nothing quite like it, and that's a fact. 

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