Critics are panning Luc Besson’s new movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but it is destined to become a cult classic.
This is nothing new to Besson. His previous space opera, The Fifth Element, underperformed when it came out in the summer of 1997. It is now considered a visual masterpiece. Like The Fifth Element, Valerian thrives on quick-footed action sequences, a bizarre menagerie of aliens, and wonderfully extraneous musical numbers. And just as with The Fifth Element, critics are complaining that it suffers from a messy story and unconvincing acting.
These people don’t understand Besson’s craft. He’s a lover of sights and spectacles—an artist of optimism who prefers to shower visual riches upon his audiences rather than sting their eyes with a sandstorm of gritty nihilism. Valerian bursts with joy in a summer of big-budget misanthropy.
Of course, the movie does fail in many respects. Neither one of the leads can act. And the plot — two intergalactic space cops (who are kinda in love), uncovering the mysteries of an unidentified alien race, the children of which resemble distended versions of Fra Angelico’s Christ child, all within the titular City of a Thousand Planets — is as convoluted as this sentence makes it sound. But when matched against its competition (War for the Planet of the Apes, Alien: Covenant, Spiderman: Homecoming), the movie triumphs.
This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Besson is not bound by the current Hollywood model of making sequels to and gritty reboots of old movies. As an indie director, he has the freedom to take risks and experiment. Valerian does things the American big screen rarely (or never) gets to see—an opening scene set to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity;” Rihanna playing a benevolent burlesque dancer; a psychedelic jellyfish straight out of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In an interview with The Verge, Besson said he put these things into his movie because he’s tired of going to the theater and seeing the same tropes in sequel after sequel of superhero movies.
They were cool five or six years ago—but it’s always New York, it’s always the same thing, it’s always the same time,” he said. “The only thing you change is the alien, which is always the villain, and it changes shape, and that’s it. The rest is the same.”
Thank God someone else is sick of superheroes.
Although it’s flopping at the box office and polarizing critics, Valerian will endure long beyond any of the other movies playing in theaters right now, with the exception perhaps of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Like all of Besson’s best movies, it is written with a clear moral simplicity. The good guys do good and the bad guys do bad. There are no surprises; we can trust the characters not to betray our expectations. For a movie that will be grouped with sci-fi classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Serenity, that’s a good thing. Big budget sci-fi movies don’t need to put on a pretense of moral complexity to be great. They succeed most when they put on a spectacle that inspires wonder at the breadth of the human imagination.
Twenty years from now, people won’t be talking about CGI monkey battles or that time when Michael Fassbender played an evil android and a less-evil android in the same movie. Instead, hopefully they will remember that crazy movie that opened with a five-minute montage of aliens shaking hands to the tune of a David Bowie song. While most summer blockbusters are trying to oppress their audiences with darkness and a distrust of humanity, Valerian looks into the final frontier with colorful hope. That will endure.
Image: Vikram Gounassegarin