Stunningly beautiful, spectacularly baroque, slightly banal yet totally bonkers, director Luc Besson’s latest science-fiction extravaganza is The Fifth Element redux. Twenty years ago the French wunderkind had to choose between bringing his favourite graphic novel Valerian and Laureline to cinematic life or his original brainchild, The Fifth Element. He chose the latter, knowing that the CGI technology needed to give the former its “Barbarella Psychedella” spark was not yet up to the fully-fledged mark.
But now he has tackled Jean-Claude Mézierès and Pierre Christin’s European comic book – a fan favorite since its 1967 debut – and the glorious result is a visually astonishing marvel that builds on everything seminal and terrific about his 1997 cult hit.
Back then space aliens in Egypt, blue extraterrestrial opera divas and a genetically regenerated, red-headed heroine squeaking gibberish were a totally new texture for the sci-fi arena, the reason The Fifth Element took a while to catch on. But now in the wake of Avatar and two helpings of Guardians of the Galaxy, Besson’s ultra-hipster, monumentally creative, acerbically witty, surprisingly touching and socially conscious flight of fantasy will hopefully find a willing audience. It couldn’t be less like your average Hollywood blockbuster if it tried, in its quirky Euro-sensibilities, downplaying of razzle-dazzle violence and one-liner kiss-offs, and in this day and age of cookie-cutter superheroes, three resounding cheers for that.
Valerian begins in high grandstanding style. Against a picture-perfect backdrop provided by David Bowie’s ageless Space Oddity, how a space station in the 20th century became the Metropolis-like Alpha City, home to thousands of alien species, by the 28th century is a mesmerising sequence of splendidly realised intergalactic peace missions and harmonious integration.
But suddenly there’s a great disturbance in the Force. The heart of the city has become an unexplained radioactive zone that threatens to destroy the whole haphazard structure. It’s up to United Human Federation agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to investigate what’s behind those intriguing shimmering barriers at the centre of this universe. And what they find in the bowels of the diverse city exposes mistaken planetary genocide and the colossal cover-up undertaken to save the reputation of its mastermind, Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen). No spoiler there, Owen is clearly evil the instant he makes his appearance.
How all this ties in with Valerian and Laureline’s first mission to capture a ‘Planet Mül converter’, a colourfully scaly armadillo-like creature that lays power-rich pearl eggs, in a fight taking place on a multitude of dimensions is something else. Then there’s the impressive cameo turn by Rihanna as Bubble, the blue cabaret alien, whose ability to transform into any living creature helps our ever-intrepid operatives escape Death by Banquet. Not to mention Laureline stealing jellyfish parasites off the backs of giant underwater manatees to access her spinal cortex for news on Valerian’s location. There’s a level of imaginative invention here that is truly second to none and provides a consistently heady constellation of innovation, eccentricity and amazement, all tied brilliantly to fantastic production design in every department.
Quite unlike their comic-strip counterparts, Dane DeHaan is surfer-dude slacker rather than darkly rugged and Cara Delevingne more cat-like model than flame-haired starlet. But while DeHaan comes across as rather laid-back boring, Delevingne brings an engagingly gritty determination to her precocious charisma. She’s the undisputed star of this ingenious lava-lamp show.
It’s Valerian’s halting marriage proposal to Laureline and the subsequent soap-opera musings that continually ground Besson’s cosmos mosaic to its detriment. When the extraordinary action is in full flow, Valerian soars through its kinetically inspired battles, slick satire and futuristic camp with deft aplomb. But when the two leads start bickering about love, commitment and sexual playlists, it crash-lands with a hefty bump.
A minor quibble in the ultimate scheme of things, though. Besson’s own definitive Space Oddity is an eye-popper that’s as much a thrilling deconstruction of the sci-fi epic as it is a laser-gun blazing blend of rip-roaring Star Wars swashbucklers and Solaris-like thought-provokers. Exploring original terrain for an altogether different perspective on the Hollywood CGI rollercoaster ride, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is gala space opera of the most bizarre and exhilarating kind. And when was the last time you could honestly say you’ve seen something so totally strange, stimulating and remarkable?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released in cinemas on Wednesday 2 August
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news