Recently, FilmFisher editor Joshua Gibbs wrote a piece defending film critics against a common accusation: “This film was just plain fun. Why don’t you snobby film critics get it?”
I stand by Gibbs’ argument in that piece, and would like to make an addendum: it is difficult to make a film that is truly fun. Many films that are defended as “just plain fun” are, in fact, just plain bad, and the appeal to fun in these cases is really a plea to lower standards. On the other hand, there are many great films that are “just plain fun,” and there is an art to making them. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a “just plain fun” movie, but it is hardly “just plain fun” in the same way Transformers: Age of Extinction is. Critics are often exhorted to “turn their brains off” to enjoy movies of this sort, but one need not turn one’s brain off to enjoy a really good “just plain fun” film. In fact, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark thoughtfully, one foregoes none of the benefits of “just plain fun;” a thoughtful viewer is perfectly capable of having a great time at the movies, and will in fact likely have a better time by admiring the artistry and efficiency with which this sense of fun is evoked, rather than striving to suspend critical faculties to maintain an illusion of fun. The result is that Raiders of the Lost Ark remains fun time and time again, while Transformers: Age of Extinction ceases to be fun shortly after a first viewing concludes, if not long before that.
Seeing Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets the first time, I took it for a “just plain fun” movie in the Transformers mode, and while I generally had an all-around pleasant time in the theater, I had no desire to see it again. Camaraderie had other plans, and seeing it again with friends, I was surprised by how fun much of it remained (with some significant exceptions, but we’ll get to those later).
At their finest, many “just plain fun” films strain towards the easy joy of a child at play. In his three-and-a-half-star review of Cars 2, Roger Ebert writes of an “elusive nostalgia” the film evoked: “I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom many years ago, with some toy cars lined up in front of me, while I used my hands to race them around on the floor and in the air, meanwhile making that noise kids make my squooshing spit in their mouths.” It strikes me as significant that some of the most enduring “just plain fun” films – for instance, Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series and Lucas’ Star Wars movies – are couched in their creators’ fond memories of childhood entertainments. In contrast, Bay’s Transformers films (though based on actual toys!) do little to capture a child’s delight, more readily recalling the imagination of a dirty-minded adolescent who has just discovered what swear words and boobs are.
With Valerian, Besson – like Lucas and Spielberg – is drawing from the imagination of his youth. Much has been made of how Valerian is a passion project for Besson, and the director himself has described the film as being about a “childhood souvenir,” the French graphic novels Valerian and Laureline. In the past, I’ve found Besson’s films mostly dissatisfying, often imperfectly mixing childish fantasy with a superficially adult tone and aesthetic. Here, drawing directly from the raw materials of his formative years, Besson strikes a much more successful balance. Of his works that I’ve seen, it’s likely my favorite, and the one with the clearest sense of heart and personal investment. Colorful fantasies in this vein are often likened to a child playing with his toys, and judging from the parade of ludicrous sights and sounds in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, one imagines that the young Besson had a particularly hyperactive imagination.
There is often a certain pleasure to be found in the description of such plots. This one begins with an opening credits montage set, naturally, to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” The sequence, depicting the backstory of the titular city of a thousand planets, cleverly pairs lyrics like “Commencing countdown, engines on” with images of countdowns being commenced and engines being turned on. As Rutger Hauer’s name appears in the credits, he appears onscreen as, evidently, the President of the Entire World, delivering a minute’s worth of exposition before disappearing, never to be seen again in the film’s runtime.
We then cut to an extended wordless sequence on a paradisal planet that seems to be one giant seashell, where we meet a race of idyllic Avatar-esque aliens who live in peace with nature or what have you, and a little creature that poops out infinite duplicates of whatever you feed it; currency, for instance. When I realized that this creature was going to be the film’s MacGuffin, I laughed aloud. The Edenic planet is promptly destroyed by ships which crash down from the sky. If this were to lead you to suspect that an environmentalist message on the evils of colonialism is waiting in the wings, you would be right.
About ten minutes into the film’s runtime, we finally meet its protagonists, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who seem to be space cops of some sort, or perhaps space secret agents. Valerian is a roguish, womanizing sort who nevertheless insists that he loves Laureline and will be faithful to her. “You’re my partner,” he says, which is true in at least one sense. Laureline is a snarky independent woman who sees through Valerian’s tough guy act but nevertheless cares for him. This may sound vaguely familiar to you.
Valerian and Laureline engage in various scantily clad beachside flirtations and blunt discussions of each other’s personalities – “You’re afraid of commitment.” “I am not! I’ve been a space cop for ten years! How’s that for commitment?” – before setting off on a mission to retrieve the currency-pooping creature from a discount Jabba the Hutt voiced by a Taken-quoting John Goodman. What complicates matters is that Goodman the Hutt resides in a kind of black market dimension that our heroes can only access through virtual reality headsets, which results in the amusing visual of Valerian being represented by nothing other than a floating, disembodied hand holding a gun. A black market deal is talking place involving the currency-pooper, and the negotiations go something like this: the Avatar aliens appeal to Goodman’s decency by reminding him that they serve a noble cause, but Goodman counters that he also serves a noble cause: himself. Valerian’s gun floats up behind Goodman’s head and his disembodied voice declares, “I serve a noble cause too: The Law.” He retrieves the MacGuffin creature, Goodman’s goons pursue, and a spectacular chase unfolds in both dimensions at once. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” Valerian says. It all sounds rather convoluted on paper, but to Besson’s credit, the sequence unfolds with a remarkable sense of clarity, cutting back and forth between the two dimensions in such a way that we can always follow what’s going on. It’s an inventive, colorful, and genuinely fun sequence with a kind of Looney Tunes logic that recalls the joyous energy of the Mission: Impossible franchise on a good day, the kind of “just plain fun” you enjoy more with your brain turned on than you would by turning it off.
Our space cops are then summoned to Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets, which is a space station comprised of many smaller space stations with distinct environments, kind of like a space version of Zootopia. The space cops’ talking spaceship describes them to us while Besson shows them to us: “The something-or-others live in the so-and-so sector,” the spaceship says, and we see some aliens in various alien environments doing various alien tasks. It all sounds very busy and overstuffed, but again, to Besson’s credit, the images are vividly imagined and lucidly rendered, ensuring that we never get lost in the silliness of it all. Anywho, there’s some business about a security crisis on the station, which ties back to the anti-colonialism message that was foreshadowed earlier. The Avatar aliens crash into what looks like a Space U.N. meeting and abduct a commander (Clive Owen), who has rather obviously telegraphed his moral dubiousness by ordering the torture of Avatar aliens and acting disdainfully towards our heroes. Valerian goes to pursue the aliens and save the commander by running through the series of colorful environments listed earlier, while Laureline advises him from a control center. She tells him to jump through Door 81 and he ends up floating in space. She turns the screen upside down and realizes it was actually Door 18. “It’s OK,” Valerian says. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
Shortly thereafter,Valerian gets lost and Laureline sets out to rescue him. She begins by seeking the aid of a trio of diminutive, money-grubbing aliens with wings and prominent noses, who bear a suspicious resemblance to The Phantom Menace’s Watto. “We know how humans work,” says one of the Wattos, demanding payment in exchange for information regarding Valerian’s whereabouts. “They are all so predictable.” “Clearly, you have never met a woman,” Laureline retorts, drawing her laser gun and shooting the creature in a way that is apparently non-fatal but very persuasive. After some cheerfully ridiculous business involving a mind-reading jellyfish obtained in a submarine piloted by a cyborg sea captain named Bob and a group of sea monsters (as the poet says, “there’s always a bigger fish”), Laureline rescues Valerian and then winds up in need of rescuing herself.
For whatever reason, Valerian’s rescue attempt involves a trip to the space station’s red-light district, where he is beset by an array of alien prostitutes. One seems to have something like a peacock tail. “I’m allergic to feathers,” Valerian informs her seriously. Eventually he meets Ethan Hawke as Jolly the Pimp, who looks like an outer space version of Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver. Ethan Hawke, as Jolly the Pimp, introduces Valerian (in a burlesque scene that seems to go on for five minutes) to a shapeshifting alien played by Rihanna. Yes, that Rihanna. After getting rid of Jolly the Pimp – played, I emphasize, by Ethan Hawke – Valerian and Rihanna go to save Laureline, who is going to have her brains eaten by an alien despot of some kind. They do this, and escape from the horde of hostile aliens by jumping down a trash chute.
If that last bit sounds an awful lot like Star Wars, that’s because at its best, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has learned many of the right lessons from Lucas’ 1977 film. Besson approaches his material with an unironic, un-self-aware sincerity not unlike Lucas’, paces his story with the briskness of old adventure serials, and constructs it around a simple logic that any child could follow. It’s quite obviously absurd, but in a way that makes for a consistently entertaining and oddly winsome two hours.
Unfortunately, there’s still half an hour left, and that’s where Valerian stumbles, as its focus returns to the tedious anti-colonialism government cover-up mystery plot, and fun falls by the wayside, eclipsed by the portentousness of the need to deliver a Timely Message. Here, Besson’s creativity dwindles, with a disappointing left turn into conventionality and politicizing. The kinetic energy and color of the preceding two hours gives way to characters standing around making truly vacuous statements about love and deducing things that were obvious to any audience member who was paying attention: mere minutes before Clive Owen is revealed to be the bad guy, a flashback makes a point of hiding his face, as if to preserve a surprise.“I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”
Worse still, the film’s climactic set piece is its most uninspired, a bland bit of shoot-em-up action that – unintentionally hilarious cutaways to Cara Delevingne repeatedly punching Clive Owen in the face notwithstanding – can’t hold a candle to the vitality and imagination of the various sword fights, space chases, and escapades involving virtual reality black markets we’ve already seen and enjoyed. There are long stretches of the film that have nothing to do with the limp, tedious plotline about the Avatar-esque aliens, and they represent Valerian at its best: a silly, lighthearted romp about the dopily, endearingly sincere romance between two space cops.
So much of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the good kind of “just plain fun,” which this snobby film critic genuinely enjoyed. I was rarely bored by it, and I don’t regret seeing it. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to walk out of a theater immediately able to envision a better version of the film you just saw. I like Besson’s film as is, but here’s a recipe for a version I wholeheartedly love: jettison the tired storyline with the government and the Avatar aliens, change the title to Valerian and Laureline, and make it a romantic comedy about how these two crazy kids fall in love while repeatedly saving each other’s lives through a series of goofy, colorful adventures. Now that would be just plain fun.