If we boil down Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to a single word, “bananatown” might do. But even that jam-packed word can’t capture the sheer joy of watching a movie where Rihanna plays a shape-shifting, burlesque dancing alien, where Ethan Hawke plays her good ol’ boy pimp, where finding your lost partner in space law enforcement is as easy (and as gross) as shoving your head up a psychic scyphozoan’s keister and where you can shop for useless bric-a-brac across dimensions so long as you remember your plane-shifting helmet. Losing yourself in Valerian’s varied array of space oddities and vibrant CGI lunacy is as easy as getting lost in the extradimensional bazaar where the film’s plot takes shape.
And for that, we should all be thankful, more thankful than we were when the pic opened in theaters over the summer. Many viewers who might enjoy such things clearly didn’t take a look when it hit theaters, which is which is why it’s worth taking a look as it hits Blu-ray on Tuesday.
With a budget of $180 million and a worldwide gross of just $225 million, Valerian is noteworthy for being the most expensive film to come out of a non-U.S. studio and the most expensive independent film ever made. The effort from Luc Besson and his EuropaCorp is also one of the biggest bombs of 2017, a movie with a blockbuster-sized budget and even greater ambitions that simply couldn’t get the traction it needed to be a hit.
Maybe there was never really much chance that Valerian would do more than tread water commercially, but that doesn’t make its theatrical fate less of a shame. If anything, it’s a burn on moviegoers, who refused Valerian’s flashy, bizarre allure in favor of comfort fare. Granted, filmgoers had plenty of worthwhile pics to choose from as Valerian struggled to stay afloat on screens, like Girls Trip and Atomic Blonde. But we get blockbusters like Valerian but once in a rare while, and when we do get them, we should embrace them. There wasn’t a movie in theaters quite like it throughout the summer box-office season, and there isn’t one out there now, either. There probably won’t be until the next time Besson gets it in his head to make another film that’s as enthusiastically loopy.
It isn’t surprising that Valerian got dumpstered Stateside, where it earned a dismal $40.4 million. Neither of its leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, are especially well-known quantities at American multiplexes, though they’ve both had roles in hyped-up comic book flicks (he in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, she in Suicide Squad); its source material, too, is literally foreign here in the U.S., being the joint product of writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres, two French comic strip creators who published their first installment of Valérian and Laureline in Pilote back in 1967. (Not that you can’t get your hands on Valérian and Laureline in America, but they don’t have much cultural cachet among American audiences, for obvious reasons.) Most of all, Valerian landed in theaters against stiff competition in July: Dunkirk, for one, and blockbuster holdovers from earlier in the month, Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes.
Valerian has its problems. DeHaan isn’t the kind of guy capable of making the braggadocious playboy cum action hero routine work, whether in 2017 or any other year; the structure is incredibly lopsided, at its most resilient when there isn’t much of a narrative (or even a plot) for Besson to stumble over; and occasionally the overreliance on CGI sucks the life out of a scene, though it’s worth pointing out that the CGI itself is roundly impressive. As loose as Valerian plays, you at times wish Besson had kept it even looser and pushed the boundaries of its genre and its scope further beyond expectation. This is a blockbuster that, though fully aware of the blockbuster playbook, willfully refuses to play by blockbuster rules, and in so doing thumbs its nose at convention.
Rather than hew close to grim-faced aesthetics, Valerian goes full-bore with its color scheme. Rather than invest in exposition to demystify its central setting, Alpha — once the International Space Station, now a colossal space city populated by aliens representing countless planets and cultures — the film gives us background by way of an opening montage sequence before leaving us more or less to our own devices. The stakes feel familiar — the fate of the world is in crisis — but they are the inverse of what we normally anticipate from that plot blueprint. So much of Valerian feels new by way of its presentation that even its well-trod blockbusting elements feel freshened up. Even at its most nonsensical, you will wish you could visit Alpha and wander its neighborhoods, mingle with its residents, take in its sights, absorb a fraction of the interstellar knowledge stored and shared within its borders. (You’ll probably wish you could spend more time with Delevingne, the more arresting of Valerian’s two leads. Her performance makes the best argument yet for her expanding acting career.)
No matter how, or how often, Valerian trips up, it never lets us down. Instead, we let it down. This is the kind of big, brash, utterly gutsy blockbusting that deserves to be called daring.