August 18, 2017

Valerian's Universe

        The movie “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” has not been a huge success, and it’s undoubtedly because the lead characters utterly fail to engage.  But to dismiss the movie entirely is to miss the incredible achievement that is the fascinating universe in which those disappointingly uncharismatic characters exist.  Luc Besson has shown us some really special places and beings in this movie, and for our family it was worth seeing for the universe alone.
        First, the opening sequence of the movie explains the City of a Thousand Planets by giving us a history of the International Space Station in a series of parallel vignettes.  First we see weightless human astronauts on the station welcoming new humans in 2020, followed by welcoming ever more diverse humans as time clearly moves farther into the future.  Before long the first alien species arrives.  The first aliens are followed by others, ever stranger and sometimes rather scary-looking, but each time, despite nervousness or uncertainty, the human leader of the ever-larger space station extends a hand and welcomes everyone.  I found this short montage quite moving, and I loved that it was a message of hope for the future: that we can coexist if we so choose.  We are told that the enormous space city that grew from its beginnings as the International Space Station has become a place where hundreds of species live together, sharing their knowledge.  I think it’s important to envision a possible future that is positive, and that is worth working toward.  (On the other hand, David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom” (aka “Space Oddity”) seemed an odd choice of music to pair with this sequence, as I think of the song as being quite depressing!)
        As for this world where hundreds of species live together, at some times more peacefully than others, it is stunningly beautiful.  With everything in CGI instead of actors in costumes, we can have a really wide variety of species, so much more than humans with funny head-bumps.  We get aquatic species, gaseous species, tiny species and huge species, robotic species, slimy species, beautiful species, hideous species…  We get species that insist on living sequestered in their own zones, and species that aggregate and co-mingle.  We see species that live in cities in the spirit of “Blade Runner”s LA or Besson’s previous NYC in “The Fifth Element,” but we also see a variety of other landscapes, from something that looks like the interior of a huge golden computer or library, to something that looks like narrow tunnels full of glowing translucent balls.  There’s an extended sequence in which we visit a city in another dimension, such that the action takes place in an empty desert and, simultaneously superimposed over it, in a huge bazaar reminiscent of something on Tatooine.  This is a new kind of setting I’ve never seen before, and exemplifies how Besson’s universe stretches us beyond previous visions of sci fi futures.
        Sadly, the main characters and basic plot don’t live up to the magic of their universe, and it’s a terrible disappointment thinking about what this movie could have been but wasn’t.  Still,  many of the secondary characters were excellent, and when it comes right down to it I did enjoy just being in that world for a couple of hours, even if I would have preferred more engaging company.

[Pictures: Various alien species, all images from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, written and directed by Luc Besson, 2017.]

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