Leave it to Luc Besson to turn a mere diversion into a proper plunge into the headstrong imagination of a topsy-turvy grown-up-adolescent with decades of mid-century fiction in the heart and worlds of possibility in the brain. Valerian radiates unchecked ambition and rains down wild-eyed mania like a convivial, cosmopolitan celestial star. Let’s go ahead and say it is a feature film, because if I don’t start with that as a certainty, I’ll speculate and speculate until its wobbly, star-bright edifice collapses upon me. And it does collapse after a fashion; its two protagonists are mismanaged and a paper-thin foundation for the deafening array of stylizations and imaginations Besson spews on top of them. But blockbusters today all have their edges sanded off, playing – like biopics and every other populist genre – like museum pieces beset by the deadening, franchise-conscious, homogeneously styled eyes of a JJ Abrams or some similar soul. Comparatively, even a filmmaker as brashly awful as Michael Bay seems like a breath of auteurist fresh air, a genuine iconoclast of garbage in an era of bland, indifferent, tidy, and thus flattening, cinematic perfection. In its ambition to exhaust the sensory and its imperfections, Valerian isn’t just warts and all. Its warts fuse it together.
In lieu of – in opposition to, in fact – shooting us forward with an increasingly identifiable narrative center galvanizing the film with the guarantee of its trajectory, Besson’s Valerian violently disarticulates any sense of coherent self. In lieu of a single identity the film shores up over time – the project of almost any popular feature film – Besson’s film intervenes with a structure which continually re-conceives itself according to the increasingly schizophrenic and momentary personal whims and fascinations of its director. As opposed to set-pieces which thrust us forth to eventual conclusion, Besson’s sensorial enigmas ricochet us around through plastic, flexible, warping tonal and thematic registers that threaten to pull the film apart as it hurtles toward its many contrarian poles. The sheer thought of it is exhausting, but the experience is magnetic: a riposte to the compulsory, contractual, and often-assumed-to-be-irrevocable belief that stability, sense, and respectable or logical narrative development are the only possible valences for cinema with its mind on the fundamentally self-disabling frontiers and borderlands of avant-garde escapism.
Valerian, when it works, which might be inseparable from when it doesn’t, is an almost impossible balance of the internal and the external, the former in that a film ideally should animate the filmmaker’s mind and not replicate merely the identifiable or surface quality of noticeable reality. And external in that it must not be trapped by the will to shut-off the outside and imagine a hermetically-sealed mind that knows only what it assumes rather than glancing, gleaming, peering at the outside world in surface of discovery. To my mind, Andrei Tarkovsky undeniably nailed the mysterious match-up best, but all special filmmakers operate in this extraordinarily liquid realm.
Dizzyingly free of the jaundiced pseudo-reality commonplace among blockbusters nowadays, Valerian – although not eloquently, and not deeply – reminds us that Tarkovsky’s films, like all great works, even the harshly minimalist films of Robert Bresson (not Luc Besson, without the “r”) that seem intensely grounded, are science fiction or fantasy in that they conjure imaginative spaces all their own, adjacent to and of but not identical to given reality. Valerian isn’t great cinema, but it fiercely uncouples blockbuster cinema from narrative and returns it to affect. It is relatively superficial affect, and Besson’s imagination isn’t one-tenth of what Tarkovsky offers, let alone the more explicit sci-fi of Jacques Tati (the link between imaginative, philosophical sci-fi in the Tarkovskian tradition and the superficial notion that sci-fi must display future technology). But, as with those films, Valerian boasts a sense of self that isn’t designed for ease of access, and it channels a manna that is not merely from a given or known source. Every image bears the imprint of his mind.
Besson’s film is blindly constructed as a series of temporary fetch-quests, a semi-narrative that is also a state of mind. It rebukes the grindstone offer of gravel-grey and dusty brown and instead plays with childlike innocence and a breathless lack of inhibition about escaping into a reverie of romantic bliss in addition to the expected action scenes. Even the latter, Besson films with a spring-loaded nimbleness more influenced by classical cartoon physics than anything Michael Bay has ever done (especially Bay’s mega-million-dollar signature series that is, you know, adapted from an action cartoon series).
The film is polluted, somewhat, by its two fetchers, an intergalactic twosome played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, neither of whom is bad, but both – especially the leading man – are badly applied to the film’s quilting. The film never musters any legitimate dynamic between the two, the byproduct of its strange and presumably audience-baiting fixation on them establishing a romance that never flowers. That they look like siblings only further damages the conceit; that they obviously should have been twins in the film is nearly a given. Neither offers much beyond their status as ciphers or totems or audience-surrogates, a la the characters of Gravity or Dunkirk, to cite examples of blockbusters which enacted the same relationship to their star figures. But Valerian unmistakably thinks they are characters, which is never fatal but often to its detriment.
Nonetheless, Valerian is an achievement, especially in its indomitable first half, an intergalactic wonder that stretches not only out to the heavens but into the cracks of the imagination. Its images are beyond impotent correlation to a screenplay’s themes that exist in service only of the hustle and bustle of event. Nor do its images narcissistically assume they can explain themselves. The best moments, like the introductory montage of handshakes, cultivate a mood of unbridled, blithe, inexplicable momentum. A later chase where DeHaan runs through multiple universes turns the film into a jazz symphony of kinesis as the film perpetually re-christens itself anew, on the hunt for alterity. Besson animates a fantasy-land that externalizes the internal, the mind’s eye, but not in a hermetic way where every image corresponds to a peg in his argumentative pathway. Instead, the film deals in incongruities and ellipses that do not add up to anything, do not complete the other, do not simply “mean”. Instead, they “are”, they represent a fertility that effuses emotion and sights and sounds that simply cannot be defined in any symbolic or metaphorical terms.
That is what I meant when I wrote that a film needs to be externalized above. I was referring to Valerian’s side-trips to a shape-shifting alien dancer played by Rihanna or a character played by Ethan Hawke who I cannot put into words. Or its seeming thousands of universes, it reconfigurable identity as a film. Valerian is the blockbuster that seems to not entirely know where it is heading from minute one. It stops to notice the eccentricities of space and time rather than flatten them into a story. It acknowledges externals that simply exist in its mind, externals that it does not write off as irrelevant to its story. Instead, it embraces them as relevant and essential for its vision-quest, its affect.
But Valerian’s externals are also internal. Its world-building, as many sci-fi fans conventionally utilize the term, does not decompress to a mere catalog of externals, of clothes and hairstyles and government laws and architecture, all immutable because they do not peer into the liquid layers of the imagination – of the internal – that are beyond them. Valerian’s world is of the mind. It creates a state of mind, a way of being, rather than simply a physical space. It creates a mental world that does not adhere to the rationalist presumption that it is entirely explicable. It succeeds at what last year’s Dr. Strange purported to do before realizing it was hamstrung and compromised by the all-containing hand of the Marvel machine. Unlike those Marvel films, Valerian is not a counterfeit imagination. Its effects, or whatever you want to call them, are moments of mental clarity in a deadening world. Its real achievements are not intellectual or even visual when one plunges to their center. They are exhaustively experiential, and they summon a potent confrontation with the mental limits of one’s mind.