Cara Delevingne Clive Owen

VALERIAN and Satirical Futurism

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 Rob Samuelson

Luc Besson knows the future 

Photo credit: Valerian/Facebook

When French filmmaker Luc Besson works in the science fiction genre, he displays an unbound imagination for the possibilities of human evolution. Besson doesn’t posit how humans will adapt and change physically (he looks ahead a few hundred years, not millions), but rather he examines how our technology, our galactic footprint, and our interactions will evolve in the centuries to come. He also has a subversive understanding of how to undercut false narratives of progress. His sci-fi films show that, yes, things will change drastically as history develops, but humanity’s ingrained tendencies will endure, too. The human story will change many times over, but it will also stay the same. This was true in 1997’s The Fifth Element and it’s even truer in the writer-director’s latest film, the candy-colored space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Besson tells the story of technological evolution in miniature in the film’s opening minutes, set to  David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” -- an on-the-nose selection that nevertheless establishes an appropriate mood for the accompanying images. A series of dialogue-free vignettes track astronauts aboard the International Space Station at various intervals over the course of centuries. Russian cosmonauts shake hands with arriving Chinese astronauts, followed decades later by space-faring scientists from Africa, the Middle East, and eventually, extraterrestrials wearing various kinds of gloriously designed pop-art suits. This causes problems for the handshakes, like when a human man stifles his disgust at having to hold the gooey tentacle of a creature not well-versed in human greeting rituals. At each turn, the space station grows sleeker, larger, capable of housing more and more creatures until it grows into its own kind of mechanized planet and blasts off for the deepest reaches of space with the galaxy’s best and brightest onboard to explore.

Besson’s intent could not be clearer. He believes in humanity’s capacity for cooperation and collaboration, for information sharing and collective action when there is something to be gained for all. The multicolored hands (and alien extremities) grasping each other warmly mean we’re working toward something: togetherness.

Not everything is so lovey dovey

That’s until, of course, Besson punctures that rosy picture with dozens of increasingly subversive needles as the film unfolds. It begins with the bickering federal agents (and would-be lovers) at the center of his space opera. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan, doing his best Keanu Reeves impression) is a womanizing, overly cocky hotshot out for glory often to the chagrin of his much-more-capable partner, Sergeant Laureline (an exasperated and sassy Cara Delevingne). Their dynamic is recognizably flirtatious, but it makes sense that she doesn’t believe his multiple declarations of love for her because of his showboating selfishness. They work for a galactic government that is content to expand at the expense of whatever peaceful indigenous peoples are in their way. Tellingly, the government’s decision makers are white men, including Clive Owen as the traveling “city’s” (the forever-expanding space station seen at the beginning of the film) Commander Arun Filitt. People of color are forced into technical roles in the government, pushing buttons while the “important” men make the big decisions. The aliens, whose expertise and cultures had provided such hope at the beginning of Valerian, are relegated to the city’s dank neighborhoods near the core of the space station, far from any windows that could provide light or a view of the cosmos.

An auteur covers up his weak spots

From a practical, real-world standpoint, one must ask a couple important questions here. While Besson makes an important point about white supremacy in our world, is it truly a great idea to make his movie’s most important characters white? Asian and black characters, including Rihanna as an illegal immigrant alien and aspiring actress who performs burlesque shows to make a living, are quickly dismissed in the narrative while the charisma-deficient DeHaan gets most of the heroic moments. Wouldn’t Besson’s point about white supremacy, imperialism, and face saving be more effective if contrasted with a more charming actor of color cast as Valerian?

These are representational shortcomings that detract from Besson’s otherwise sharp observations of human greed. But those observations are the source of great fun and humor. For example, he brings his protagonists to a planet that turns magic-seeming interdimensional technology into an opportunity to create a marketplace of a million shops that sell useless decorations. The galaxy’s overfed mediocrities ride school buses that seem to have not evolved in centuries to wear headsets that are flimsier than modern hard hats to gawk at the multi-dimensional wonders of commerce while alien gangsters toil in the darkened corners of this greed-based fantasia. This sequence, which is interrupted by Major Valerian bumbling his way through a mission, is satire of the highest order.

Besson’s world building in Valerian is astonishing, as well. Every environment teems with life. No two aliens look alike, and their physiques and body language are perfectly suited for their specialized roles aboard the space station and within the thematic structure of the movie. Electrified golden creatures buzz with energy while they make the station’s telecommunications come to life and the underwater farming beasts float above their crops, patiently waiting for them to ripen. These animals are second-class citizens toiling away at their trades to make their ecosystem run properly -- these parts are not not fulfilling or adventurous like Valerian and Laureline, but their roles are important to the inner workings of the ship.

And, of course, the director of The Fifth Element has an unparalleled grasp of spectacle and trippy imagery. Besson crafts chase sequences with precision and just the right amount of danger. One always gets the sense that these characters are in over their heads and flailing while they speed down neon corridors or dive underwater to come in contact with jellyfish that have psychedelic properties that allow users to view another person’s memories. The stakes and objectives are always clear, as is the action. As a thrill ride, Valerian brings the goods.

Maybe we can improve after all

Thrilling as roller coaster rides may be, if they lack substance for an audience to sink its teeth into, they quickly fade from memory. Besson doesn’t let that happen. He shows via Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that humans are capable of positive societal change in addition to technological change. One character makes the point that soldiers would rather die than be humiliated, but that type of brainwashing doesn’t work on everyone. Many soldiers have good hearts and are not mindless automatons out to do the bidding of a megalomaniacal empire whose only desire is to uphold its economic self-interest. When presented with the opportunity to avoid genocide, one would like to think that a soldier would choose the peaceful route. Besson spends most of the film bursting the bubble of kumbaya hand holding fantasies about humanity’s future, but by movie’s end he makes a plea for radical kindness. Mercy looks good on you, humanity.

Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Available now in theaters

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