Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A joyful touch of crazy cinematic magic

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in NZ cinemas on August 10

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (M)
137 min
★★★½

Often with a film review, context is everything.

You can't compare the magnificence of Dunkirk with the gorgeous silliness of Valerian (believe me – I watched them on consecutive nights and they are incomparable) but you can talk about Valerian in the company of other sci-fi extravaganzas which feature prominent CGI, wistful messages of hope, and pay tribute to childhood joys. So let's stick with that as a starting point.

Director Luc Besson's vision of space travel and extra-terrestrial life in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets ...

Director Luc Besson's vision of space travel and extra-terrestrial life in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is awesome.

Director Luc Besson has reportedly spent his whole life dreaming of adapting the graphic novel Valerian and Laureline, which he loved as a child. He also spent a large chunk of his own money on the project, which can either be seen as an indication of self-indulgent madness or a commitment we should respect.

One thing's for sure: Besson gave this film his all and, for all its flaws (the worst of which is its two-hour-plus length – 88 minutes would have been perfect), you can't accuse it of being lazy.

What you can assume is that even if you think the acting is a bit pedestrian, the script a tad cliched or the costumes a little on-the-nose, it's all in service of Besson's unique vision. (Valerian is more in line with The Fifth Element than his beloved crime drama Leon: The Professional). So you can take it or leave it.

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The titular Major Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan, a young actor whose usually earnest features have in the past lent themselves to navel-gazing teen roles and slightly unhinged villains.

Here, DeHaan has a stab at being the cocky young heartthrob – not his natural milieu but definitely aided by Sergeant Laureline's (Cara Delevingne) feisty banter and lovely looks. She won't mind my mentioning her beauty; Delevingne is first and foremost a British famous model, currently building a respectable acting career (notably as the lead in the bestselling young adult adaptation Paper Towns) and her innate confidence helps to lift Valerian's slightly limp game. (Purposely or not, DeHaan's voice sounds for all the world like the wooden Keanu Reeves, an evocation of The Matrix which probably works in the film's favour.)

The plot involves visiting various planets, saving this and that, and fighting the other – but the story isn't what makes Valerian fun.

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What's awesome is Besson's vision of space travel and extra-terrestrial life, rendered in sometimes galling CGI reminiscent of Avatar or smartly evoking the legendary bar and market scenes of the Star Wars movies.

After a charming opener, which presents a utopian history of space exploration (and sets up the story's thread of peace and love), he builds worlds which truly make you go "wow" – the dizzying consumerism of the Big Market a particular highlight.

The cameos, however, bring mixed reviews: Ethan Hawke is non-ironically awful, and the welcome return of Clive Owen utterly squandered. But then Rihanna makes her much-heralded appearance as a shape-shifting performer, and all is forgiven.

If you're after light entertainment, heavy spectacle and a tinge of crazy cinematic magic, Valerian will deliver.

 - Stuff

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