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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)
Though it’s never had much of a presence in America, Valerian (and Laureline, to use its comic book title) has a history that spans 50 years. Considered an institution in its native France, its influence is wide ranging across Europe and even, reportedly, on one George Lucas and Star Wars (although, really, there wasn’t much that didn’t influence SW.) The Valerian comics are known for their elaborate stories, often involving time travel, and their lush, fantastic visuals. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might not have so much of the former, but hot damn does it have the latter in spades.
Valerian (who sounds and kind of looks like a young Keanu Reeves) is a space agent. Laureline (who sounds and kind of looks like a young Alicia Silverstone) is his talented but lower ranking partner. Together they work for the space military with what appears to be wide latitude to complete special missions. Think Steed and Peel, but with considerably more sexual tension. The City of a Thousand Planets is the ISS after humanity has had several thousand close encounters. Now much enlarged and self-contained, it speeds along through the galaxy, home to a wildly diverse alien menagerie inhabiting every type of biome and stratum. If you’ve ever played Mass Effect, it’s basically Citadel Station.
The plot is somewhat complex, but linear. There’s a McGuffin, secrets, conspiracies, a double cross or two, but they’re all on the same thread without too much in motion at once. The dialog is functional but unsophisticated, peppered with generic proper nouns. Operatives perform Missions to secure Objectives for the Agency. You get the idea. Whedon it ain’t, and occasionally it kludges up the proceedings, but most of the time it simply doesn’t matter. Valerian shines brightest when it simply allows us to bask in its quirky majesty, when hundreds of fabulous and just-this-side-of-ridiculous costumes, sets, and character designs interact with each other in weird and wonderful ways. The plot is just there to give us time to breathe between action sequences: chases, gunfights, fisticuffs, even a jazzed up musical number courtesy of a Rhianna cameo. Yes, it might lose a little flavor by keeping to more generic storytelling, but if the other option is tossing in a few hundred alien names and terms just to give the illusion of gravitas, I’ll gladly take the compromise. If the Star Wars prequels were somehow stripped of their ponderous pretension, something like Valerian would’ve been the result.
Valerian seems to be following the typical progression for movies of its type. Those that lead with a bold audio/video aesthetic, like Flash Gordon, Tron, Speed Racer, Besson’s own Fifth Element, and many of Terry Gilliam’s efforts, might not do great initially, but if history doesn’t totally redeem them, then they at least develop a solid cult following, if only for their camp factor. Valerian is style over substance, but with this much style, it gets away with it.
Final Score: A-
A feast for the senses, Valerian’s style is its substance (and its substance is its style). It doesn’t change the world, but it does make it just a little bit brighter.
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