Review: Luc Besson's latest, Valerian, is gratifyingly insane

If you ever watched Besson’s 1997 venture into the realms of sci-fi blockbusters, The Fifth Element, and wondered what on Earth you just witnessed, brace yourself for this one.


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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen
Four stars

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first – Luc Besson's latest sci-fi epic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is bonkers. It's good bonkers, but it if movies could be certified, this one would be in a straitjacket with a healthy supply of sedatives and several burly orderlies constantly on hand in case of trouble.

If you ever watched Besson's 1997 venture into the realms of sci-fi blockbusters, The Fifth Element, and wondered what on Earth you just witnessed, brace yourself for this one.

makes that film look like Dancer in the Dark. Besson was given almost three times the budget – the US$225 million price tag (Dh826.4m) puts it among the most expensive indie films ever made – and complete creative control.

The movie opens with special space agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his sidekick/love interest Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to rescue an almost-extinct, tiny, lizard-like alien from smugglers in an alternate dimension.

The creature is rather special because its impressive metabolism allows it to reproduce thousands of exact copies of anything it eats in the same way most of us digest our dinner. You can see how this would appeal to smugglers – gold, money, even entire worlds can be reproduced in multiple in seconds.

We don't really need to dwell too much further on the plot – the pair find themselves on Space Station Alpha, the titular city, where they unravel an evil plot, an entire new species living as refugees after their planet was secretly destroyed, and the need to unite their earlier prize with some energy pearls, which will allow the refugees' former home to be rebuilt.

The plot makes little sense, and essentially serves solely as a vehicle for Besson to express his aesthetic vision. This really is a movie for the senses rather than the mind – aliens, space stations, far-away planets and costumes are all constructed in meticulous detail by a director who is finally getting to make a movie he has coveted for years, ever since he read Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières's Valérian comics growing up.

The movie offers a visceral trip into Besson’s wild imagination. We see Rihanna in a cameo as a shape-shifting, poetry-reciting pole dancer; giant, walrus-like aliens fishing for humans in space using neon butterflies as bait; huge, memory-sucking jellyfish that you can wear as a hat to track your colleagues; an intergalactic ode to Captain Nemo; and Ethan Hawke as the delightfully named Jolly the Pimp – it’s fevered-dream stuff.

On the downside, the script is peripheral, the acting isn't great (though DeHaan does an excellent impression of Bill and Ted-era Keanu Reeves throughout) and the supposed chemistry between the will-they/won't-they lead characters is utterly unconvincing, but it simply doesn't matter.

Like a Dalí painting, this film exists in a realm beyond the need to make sense, so find the biggest screen you can, sit back and let the madness begin.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is in cinemas now.