Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens with a montage of, first, all the races of earth, and then all kinds of races of aliens meeting on the International Space Station and building it out together. This sequence is set, ironically, to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—a song about being alone scores a scene about coming together—but it’s difficult to tell whether the movie means this ironically or if it just wants to capitalize on Bowie’s celebrity, and, hey, it’s a song about space in any case. From the get-go, the movie’s tone is off.
This opening is followed by 1) an apocalypse on an idyllic, sea shore themes planet, then by 2) a scene of supposedly flirty repartee between the movie’s two leads, and then by 3) a heist/chase scene on a desert planet. And then, finally, we arrive at the scene of narrative exposition where the movie’s primary plot is established. The scenes that preceded this expository scene are entertaining on their own, but, absent a clear narrative drive, they seem superfluous. So from the get-go, the movie’s structure is off. Worse, rather than establishing a sense of madcap mayhem in these opening scenes that will carry us through the narrative, their feeling of inessential excess pervades the film. (And it doesn’t help that the movie doubles down on the romantic subplot, even though the two leads share not a whisper of chemistry.)
It’s not that what we see in these opening scenes is actually inessential the plot. Most of it matters, but we don’t know why it matters until very late in the movie. It’s all backstory and relational dynamics, and those are both things that mean more in movies when the action of the story teases them out in conflict.
That’s not to say Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn’t entertaining. I’ve long defended director Luc Besson’s work. His movies revel in the idea of being movies. He handles genre material with evident glee, and his directorial hand is sure. Even when this movie is bandying about cliches, he frames them well, he keeps the camera still, and he zeroes in on the most important moment in each scene, be it action or acting. If you take each scene as it comes and don’t worry about it mattering to any larger narrative, the movie is consistently surprising and delightful, if a tad too serious at times. Referentially, it’s too much James Cameron and George Lucas—whose movies thrive on special effect world-building and faux psychological weight—and not enough Roger Corman and Dino De Laurentiis—whose movies depend on clear, propulsive stories and gee-whiz enthusiasm.
Oh well. It’s summer, movie theaters are air-conditioned, composer Alexander Desplat never phones it in, and the only product placed in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the International Space Station.
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