Luc Besson's futuristic space epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is going to inspire either your ire or your fandom. Early reviews have fluctuated wildly from generally positive to blistering to euphoric. Besson's inventive, no-holds-barred aesthetic reaches beyond the levels of experimentation generally tolerated by American audiences. Touted as the most expensive film ever made in France, Valerian pulls out all the stops. Too many? Just the right amount? It probably depends on your personal level of sequel fatigue and your regard for the formulaic onslaught of the Marvel brand.
Based on the graphic novel series Valérian et Laureline by Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières, the story centers around two space rangers (or something akin to a space ranger) who are tasked with saving the multi-planet space station Alpha from a mysterious dark force. There is an overabundance of scenery—so much so that George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic and Peter Jackson's WETA Digital, two of the industry's leading special-effects studios, came together for the first time to create Besson's mad vision. And the effects are mind-meltingly amazing. They are also, to their credit, hilariously cartoonish. Besson understands the uncanny valley and its hazardous edges, and his aesthetic choices are closer to Pixar than to The Avengers. The movie is filled with so many funny, grotesque, inventive, brilliant alien creatures that, were he around to witness it, Jim Henson would be pleased.
Of course, in all of this dazzling wizardry, the human performances are bound to be dwarfed. Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan are charming and capable leads, but even they would concede to being upstaged by (spoiler alert) The Doghan Daguis, three bat-winged platypi creatures with snouts instead of bills, who sell secrets, monetizing gossip and playing a bitchy yet pivotal role in the unfolding drama of the movie. Yes, that is a sentence that I just wrote.
However, there is one light too bright (like a diamond?) to be dimmed: your girl, Robyn Rihanna Fenty. In a bustling sequence at some glitzy, low-end tourist trap on the periphery of Alpha, Valerian (DeHaan) winds up in the clutches of a flamboyant whoremonger played by Ethan Hawke, who appears to be a completely literal depiction of the former television pick-up artist Mystery. His name is Jolly the Pimp, because, of course. Inside Jolly's burlesque trove of yuck, Valerian is treated to a performance by Jolly's prized possession, an enslaved shapeshifting stripper named Bubble. When Bubble turns her head and you realize it's Rihanna, you scarcely have time to catch your breath before she backflips into a stunningly CG-assisted dance sequence in which she changes outfits about 25 times. The scene looks like the rapid-fire event horizon of pop stardom. It's RuPaul's Drag Race on acid, and true to its form, it's a shade shady.
Valerian is disturbed by Bubble's enslavement, which she mistakes for displeasure at her performance. Eyes brimming with tears, she implores him to tell her what she could have done better. When she reveals her true form as a blue blob, some protean combination of the Pillsbury Doughboy and a hammerhead shark, Valerian helps her escape and it's off to the races.
Bubble winds up playing a bigger role in the film than you might think, and though Rihanna isn't physically present for a lot of the action, her voice lends a comedic soundtrack to a lot of the action-heavy sequences. I can't recall at this point whether she yells out lines like "I don't THINK SO!" and "Hi-yaaa!" but that basically get the gist across. It's dumb, ridiculous, and wonderful. At the press and industry screening I attended, the audience was audibly sad to see Bubble's time onscreen come to an end. When Valerian stared into her computer-generated eyes and said goodbye, he said, "You are the greatest artist the universe has ever known." A chorus emerged from the IMAX seats. "Damn right," someone yelled. "Seriously," another added. And then everybody clapped.
Star Musical.ly twins Lisa and Lena dance to Rihanna: