Adam Baran is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose short films have won awards and screened at LGBT film festivals around the world. He has received special acclaim for his music video Dirty Boots and his short film Jackpot, which won Best Short at the 2013 Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. He has written for MTV, VH1 and Logo, most notably the first season of the hit webseries Hunting Season. Adam is currently the co-curator of Queer/Art/Film, a monthly screening series at the IFC Center in New York City which has been praised in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Adam has programmed films for Outfest and NewFest, and is currently at work on his first feature.
I have never liked a Luc Besson movie in my entire life until I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I remember going with my aunt and uncle to see The Professional at age 12 and hating it in the extreme. When I saw The Fifth Element a few years later with my father, I followed his lead and declared it idiotic, ultra tacky and stupid. I even wrote a bad review of it for my school newspaper, into which I am sure I poured all sorts of Owen Gleiberman-meets-Libby Gelman-Waxner-esque quips showing how much more sophisticated (and straight) I was than the plebes who would enjoy something as undeniably fruity as Besson’s flouncy bouncy sci-fi camp aesthetic.
What a difference 20 years can make. Here I am, as faggoty as can be and I am stanning hardcore for Valerian, Besson’s utterly delightful return to Fifth Element territory, which stars the lovely-to-look-at Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as a space-age Dick and Jane (Dane N Jane) who are tasked with solving some sort of meaningless mystery and oh who cares? This movie is an absolutely superb piece of summer fluff that really should have been called Yassssssssss: The Movie.
First of all, a caveat. I know that I would still have liked this movie if I had seen it fully sober and in a 2D theater. But I probably wouldn’t have liked it quite as much as I did seeing it ripped to the tits on some Super Goji Haze weed dabs and in a 4DX theater. I have written before about how much I love 4DX for its ability to make even the stinkiest blockbuster better thanks to seats that move and spray you with water, wind and air and olfactory delights. Valerian was the absolute perfect movie for this William Castle 3.0 format. Some of the films I’ve seen in 4DX (Batman V Superman, Ant-Man) often have long stretches where nothing is happening that utilize the moving pieces of 4DX. But Valerian is ALIVE! It’s the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse of sci-fi action movies. Everything is moving flying running crashing whirring swirling shooting bouncing jumping and so I was doing the same for nearly the entire run of the film. Sadly, Valerian no longer seems to be playing in 4DX, so if you see it in 2DX try to sit in front of a kick-happy child to get an approximation of the effect.
The film begins with two gayyyyyyyyyyyyy prologues. In the first prologue, which I’m calling “Category IS,” we learn about the space station that would later become Alpha, and watch as a series of fiiiiiiiiiiiierce aliens emerge from the end of a RuPaul’s Drag Race-ian catwalk to pose pose turn and serve before moving into the space station, thus creating the titular thousand-planeted city. In the second, which I’m calling “French Yogurt Commercial Circa 1972,” a race of bald, fishy (like, literally fishy, not like gay “fisssshhhy”) aliens – sort of a cross between the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avaturd and the genetic mutant monster in Splice – cavort around their paradisiacal beach planet, waking up to start each day by rubbing magic pearls on their faces. At this point, I would have been happy if the film had just continued in this fashion, watching these waifish aliens perform their morning ablutions while the sweet-smelling beach breeze washed over me. But nothing gold can stay, and so suddenly an apocalypse occurs, wiping out the planet and its princess, who watches helplessly as her brethren board a ship and take cover.
Luckily, what follows is one over-the-top chase sequence after the next featuring vividly realized visuals on par with Gaspar Noé’s neon masterpiece Enter the Void. We meet the titular Valerian and his partner Laureline (full disclosure, I thought her name was the oddly countrified Laura Lynn the whole movie) who are busy carrying out James Bondian space missions on behalf of the government, and who wind up infiltrating a kind of virtual reality city that allows them to straddle two dimensions, which leads to them chasing or get chased around the many different regions in Alpha including a Star Wars-cantina style red-light district, an underwater area populated by giant dinos with magical jellyfish, and the throne room of a cannibal alien king who is the only person in the galaxy who wants Cara Delevingne for her brains.
Any discussion of Valerian would be worthless without a passage devoted to the movie’s true star, Rihanna, to whom the chance to play a good actress was no doubt a serious challenge (zing! Baran 1, Gleiberman 0). Bad Girl RiRi plays Bubble, a shape-shifting alien species called a “glamourpod” who can change herself into anything a la Mystique, but who’s been imprisoned as a stripper-slash-sex-slave by the cast-against-type pimp Ethan Hawke. When Valerian first encounters her, it kicks off another RuPaul’s Drag Race-ian catwalk sequence in which Bubble shapeshifts into a variety of over-the-top drag looks before offering to recite some Shakespeare (that’ll do, RiRi). Next, Valerian helps her escape and she envelops him so that he can rescue Loretta Lynn, er I mean, Lorelei Lee, er I mean Laureline from the aforementioned cannibal king, but eventually [SPOILER] she is fatally wounded and winds up reciting Juliet’s final death lines. This entire section is pure candy for my camp-loving lavender brethren and I will gladly suck Luc Besson’s dick as a thank you for going there.
The last act of the film features the final confrontation and defeat of the villainous Clive Owen, the Trumpian general who mercifully vanishes for nearly an hour and 20 minutes of the film, and a boring as fuck – but clearly subversively mocking – heteronormative standard will-they-or-won’t-they subplot about Valerian and Laureline finally sealing the deal. As the film ended, I was smiling from ear to ear, even though I was sad sad sad to leave this universe.
To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of all this. If you had told me I would enjoy a Luc Besson movie a year ago, I would have told you you were insane. Maybe I’ve just come around to him and need to revisit all of his cinema du look classics to discern the glaringly obvious gay subtext that my wiser friends all gagged over in Fifth Element. Or maybe I was just in the mood for something silly and somehow the combo of camp and old-school MGM meets George Lucas space-opera spectacle wormed its way into the pleasure centers of my brain. Or maybe I’m just “dependably contrarian,” as one of my friends commented on the giddy Facebook post that I posted after I left the theater. Either way, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one of my favorite movies of the summer. Should you see it? YAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS…..