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Besson Marvelously Inventive in First Hour, Familiar in Second, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

“Anything else I should know before I voluntarily stick my head in its mouth?” – (Laureline).

“Actually, it’s not his mouth.” – (Doghan Daguis).

For 20 years, I’ve tried to decide if I like writer/director Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. I could probably say “no” if not for the fact that my children love it and watch it every time it’s on TV, which is a lot. Even with having seen it 100+ times, they continually exhort me to buy it for them on Blu-Ray, which I’m sure I could find a copy for $5 in a bargain bin somewhere, but THEN how many more times would I have to watch it? Still, I’ve made my peace with The Fifth Element, which is quite an imaginative and genuinely funny work, but I’ll always wonder how much of my belated acceptance is due to familiarity and the realization that, sometime within the next month, I’ll see it again.

Am I going to have the same dilemma with Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?

There’s a lot to admire about what Besson himself has described as his dream project, based on a French comic detailing the adventures of Federation lawgiver Valerian and his sidekick, Laureline. Even though I’m pretty fed up with cartoony CGI filmmaking, I’ll grant that Besson’s opening 15 minutes is brilliant work, as we see the genesis of Alpha, the fabled City of a Thousand Planets, evolving from humble Terran space station to enormous celestial megalopolis. In short order, Besson whisks us to a faraway alien civilization decimated by B well, by whom is kind of the question. This world is so breathtakingly beautiful, so idyllic and gorgeous that my daughter whispered, “Dad, I want to go live there!” But, 10 years later, there’s skullduggery afoot on Alpha, with smuggled goods and murders pointing back to events of a decade earlier, requiring Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

But that’s not really what the movie’s about. It’s a love story, albeit fairly one-sided — at least, to begin with — as Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a frequent philanderer with his subordinates, professes his love for Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who’s not buying it. There’s lots of snazzy effects and galactic aliens to entertain the eye, but the story’s real reason raison d’etre is the sexual tension between Valerian and Laureline, who, like so many couples before them (Maddie and David in Moonlighting, Mulder and Scully in The X-Files) are obviously in love, yet for some reason or reasons won’t consummate their relationship. Maybe it’s a professional distance, or maybe that’s just the excuse. It’s their wisecracking banter that’s the real pleasure of the movie, which is actually one of the rare ones I’d recommend seeing in its stunning 3D.

Ostensibly, DeHaan and Delevingne struck me as being too young to convince me they had this years-long relationship or that they have the experience to be the Federation’s crack operatives whom generals and ministers treat with deference. Very quickly, Delevingne takes control and by sheer force of personality commands the movie. If nothing else comes out of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, she’ll emerge a star, or, since she’s one of Europe’s top models, a bigger star. It takes DeHaan a little longer to convince me, or maybe it took me a little longer to let myself be convinced precisely because Valerian is deferential to Laureline. Just as Delevingne is the star of the movie, Laureline is the star of Valerian’s life.

Besson presents his tale with a tongue in cheek that you don’t normally see, except maybe in the occasional movie like 1980’s Flash Gordon. There are enormously fun set pieces such as Valerian’s and Laureline’s infiltration of a tourist party going into an interdimensional marketplace, and Valerian’s interlude in an alien strip joint which features the most outrageously inventive poledance I’ve ever seen in a movie.

But the invention of the first hour gives way to the necessities of the plot, which means some shootouts, and frankly I’ve seen it all before, and so have you. You also know, if you pay close attention to the cast list, what the mystery is about and who’s behind it. For a while, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is indeed fun in the same irreverent sense as Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, but I don’t know that I could see running out to buy it for the kids on Blu, or even 4K, if I decide to go that way. Maybe in 20 years when I’ve forgotten the last third of the movie.

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