There’s such an immersive gorgeousness to Luc Besson’s adaptation of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ French comic book saga Valerian and Laureline that it almost doesn’t matter that the two lead characters are weirdly cast and thinly played … and that the plot has them on a mission to save a guy – Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) – we pretty much know is a bad hat from his first appearance, but still distracted by foolishly getting captured and needing to be rescued several times too many. If ever there was a movie that required you settle your 3D glasses comfortably and go with the flow, this is it. Deep down there’s the usual message about peace-loving spindly beachcombing aliens being preferable to warlike goons with ranks of killbots as backup in case the average grunt gets an attack of conscience when it’s massacre time, but any story or message takeaway will be minimal – though there is an enormous wealth of sensory stuff on offer.
In one sequence, a grotesque alien king squats on a throne and samples a succession of fabulous meals (some still living) worn as hats by a parade of flunkeys but spits out and hurries on to the next (in an unlikely move, it seems his refined taste actually runs to the heroine’s brains) – the whole film is like that, whipping up entire pocket universes for action scenes, or even as throwaway backdrops the heroes pass through, and then moving on before you can possibly savour every pixel on the screen. It’s hard not to be seduced, though it still feels as if Besson has spent all of two days writing a script with English-language dialogue too thudding to fit into Silver Age comic speech balloons and scene transitions consisting entirely of ‘and then … you won’t believe this, but WOW!’
The film opens with a brief history of centuries of spacefaring as Earthmen encounter more and more gorgeous, strange aliens – Rutger Hauer is in and out before the credits as the President of the World State Federation, and David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ plays over more and more elaborate spaceships and charming-amusing-gross encounters with deputations of nonhumans (there’s a lot of slime in this movie – when it doubt, Besson likes to apply something sticky to Cara Delevingne, who has one key scene with her head stuck up a psychic jellyfish’s ass). Another beautiful sequence involves the idyll of the pearl people, ended by crashing ships from a nearby space battle – which turns out to be a dream/vision projected into the head of hero Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who is sent with his partner Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne), to investigate murky doings in the title environment. The heroes are introduced writhing over each other in swimwear, then put on uniforms so they can set up a relationship arc that doesn’t register well onscreen, make any kind of sense and comes off as slightly creepy.
Maybe Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be a space opera version of Steed and Mrs Peel – suave, unflappable spy-adventurers always on the side of right and ready with charm and a quip in the direst circumstances. But DeHaan grins like a stalker psycho and the Major’s heavy courtship – including a proposal of marriage – of a Sergeant who has to take orders from him might be cause for a harrassment suit in this century. Laureline resists because she is aware of Valerian’s rep as a ladies’ man (he has pix of his ‘playlist’ plastered over their spaceship) but you just know she’ll relent towards the end, but not commit to anything that would rule out a sequel. It’s as if Besson looked at the Bond-Moneypenny relationship in ‘60s Bond films and missed the point that it can’t ever be consummated. Late ron, Rihanna shows up as shapeshifting 25th century Sally Bowles aka Bubble in an astonishing dance sequence – and she becomes a temporary member of the team, but Valerian is suddenly, uncharacteristically shy around her (NB: I’d have to look at the film again to determine whether the playlist is exclusively human).
… but once you’re past that – and have tidied away any thoughts about who might have been higher up your casting list than these two – the film gets on with just being amazing. An early set-piece is an infiltration of a crowded market which exists in another dimension and can be accessed only by tourists wearing special glasses and gadgets. Later, we crash through half a dozen brilliantly-realised, overpopulated alien environments which make the worlds of the Guardians of the Galaxy series look like that constantly redressed 1960s Star Trek alien planet set. The pearl people show up with splendid goo weapons. There’s time to appreciate details like the circuit-board patterns on the peak of Clive Owen’s hat and the brain-scoop device wielded by that nasty epicure. Ethan Hawke is a pimp and Herbie Hancock is V&L’s boss (their mission seems a bit like Barbarella’s in the Roger Vadim film) and John Goodman and Elizabeth Debicki voice alien beings. Outside of paradoxically mundane franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which layer a science fiction veneer over familiar war or adventure premises, space opera is a rare thing in cinema and this should get credit for delivering wonder, amazement and beauty on a huge scale even if it’s insubstantial drama with a wildly inconsistent tone.