Sunday 27 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Twenty years after The Fifth Element, director Luc Besson is trying desperately to reignite that magic with Valerian. Its colourful cast and campy humour are certainly reminiscent of his former film, but there's also a large dose of Avatar, of Star Wars, Star Trek and any other sci-fi fantasy you can think of. Yet for all the film's unoriginality, it's an enjoyable romp.

The city of the title is the International Space Station that's gradually built up over centuries with inhabitants from across the galaxy. Now know as Alpha, it's a haven of peace and equality, policed by humans. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is one such major, partnered with the sassy Laureline (Cara Delevingne). We first meet them on the job on another planet, but soon they're embroiled in a mission to save Alpha from a mysterious threat and uncover the secrets of the planet Mül and its indigenous humanoid aliens who were wiped out years before.

It's a simplistic narrative that is ultimately predictable, but as popcorn entertainment goes it's easy to buy into. The cast are likeable, DeHaan doing his best Han Solo impression and Delevingne having a lot of fun playing herself, but it's the world and periphery characters that make the film so enjoyable. With its varied alien races and vivid environments, the film is a visual wonder - idyllic beaches, seedy cities, and a virtual reality marketplace. Ethan Hawke appears for a brief comedy cameo, and Rihanna is perfectly watchable as the shapeshifting exotic dancer Bubble.

For all its shallowness, it's easy to read politics into the narrative. As a place of equality, Alpha is the idyllic paradise that liberals dream of, so when the film's nemesis chooses to save his own people at the expense of others, it's not hard to see parallels to Trump, Brexit and other far-right politics. The colonial sub-plot, with humans destroying a primitive civilisation for their own gain, stinks of Avatar.

On the flip side, there's favourable gender politics too, from the androgyny of the aliens, to Delevingne's Laureline. She's certainly Valerian's equal, given plenty of witty one-liners, saving his ass, and teaching him a thing or two along the way. So when the graphic novel the film is based on, Valérian and Laureline, includes her in the title, why does the film remove her?

Of course, the graphic novels have run for over forty years and are considered a landmark in their genre, influencing many sci-fi films produced since. Now it's come full circle, but Valerian cannot live up to its source material and fails to progress the genre in any way. It's little more than a teen fantasy, but one that's told with such charm and glee you'll happily sit back and enjoy the ride.


Watch: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is out now.