Like Steven Spielberg, Luc Besson uses the latest in technology to breathe life into the comic books that fired his youthful imagination. His latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is recognizably by the same director who made The Fifth Element 20 years ago, reveling in his ability to create worlds that never were, and using special effects he couldn’t have imagined in 1997. This science-fiction epic gives us all sorts of cool things to look at, from oceanic sub-worlds full of marine creatures to Great Wall of China-sized circuit boards tended by floating robots, but it’s one star turn that outshines them all.
After a skillful opening credit sequence depicting the International Space Station growing and evolving over centuries into Alpha, a free-floating commercial hub of human and alien races, the movie introduces us to Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), undercover agents for the intergalactic government who are partners in the field and sometimes in bed as well. Upon returning to Alpha, their commander (Clive Owen) gives them a new mission: Take control of his personal security during a sensitive strategy meeting about the mysterious radioactive dead zone that has appeared at Alpha’s heart. His concerns are proven right when terrorists strike the meeting and kidnap him.
This is loosely based on the series of French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières that ran from 1967 to 2010. Besson translates their extravagant visual imagination excellently to the screen; besides the wealth of imaginary locations that we see, the director has his characters use a whole array of nonlethal weaponry and doesn’t show us what the weapons do until the moment they’re used. The film is spiced with all manner of bizarre cameos: Ethan Hawke as a nose-pierced pimp, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock as a defense minister, a small army of French film directors. In addition, the wildlife here includes giant underwater behemoths and a spiky creature the size of a small dog that replicates pearls — not since Avatar has a movie given cryptozoologists so much to chew over.