The most thrilling scene in Luc Besson’s stupefyingly ambitious new science fiction opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets takes place inside a giant metaphor. Protagonists Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) have been tasked with retrieving a McGuffin from an alien junk dealer whose storefront happens to be located in an alternate dimension. Through the use of virtual reality-style gear and miniportals resembling old-school boomboxes, they’re able to reach through the membrane of reality and into the world layered on top of their own. The ensuing chase straddles the line between thrilling and silly, cross-cutting between Valerian hustling through a bustling marketplace in the mirror-plane, and dodging invisible bullets through a vast desert back in his own dimension.
It’s easy to imagine Besson staging this sequence as an analogue in defense of Valerian’s CGI-heavy digital filmmaking. At the interdimensional bazaar, Laureline and Valerian move just like actors in a greenscreened world, physically existing in a real space while simultaneously projected into a manufactured one. And while Besson good-naturedly jokes about the limits of the mediating equipment — wondrous as these portals are, they’re still prone to go on the fritz like any other gizmo — he reinforces its awe-inspiring potential over everything else. Like his characters, Besson was on a mission that couldn’t be accomplished without leaving the physical world. Inside and outside the movie, the transportive magic of technology makes previously impossible things possible.
Valerian has its faults (stilted dialogue, bafflingly spotty chemistry between the leads, third-act troubles), but it still makes the ultimate argument in favor of CGI’s unique utility in blockbuster filmmaking. VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk recently told Polygon that Besson had dreamed of making Valerian for years, but had to patiently wait for the digital innovations to catch up with the insane scope of his vision before he could even try. It took the full-immersion fakery of Avatar in 2009 to embolden him into following through. Valerian conjures a universe no less dazzling than that of James Cameron’s colossally successful space opera, but it pushes its creative limits even further. Where Avatar synthesized a cherry-picked handful of indigenous cultures to create an aesthetically plausible new civilization, Besson’s throws together a hectic mashup of styles that play like the United States of Pop with science fiction imagery. I enjoy picturing Stokdyk sitting the director down before production began and laying out all the VFX options at his disposal, with Besson simply responding, “Yes.”
Besson has emerged as a shameless champion of CGI at a time when practical effects are being sold and perceived as truer, more labor-intensive, but more honorable. The split between the two casts a more flattering light on handmade work. Plenty of critics, myself included, have mounted the argument that an over-reliance on virtual techniques has made big-league directors lazy, and their films coldly impersonal. For example, there’s been a fair bit of derision aimed at the CGI used to save money, like the copy-pasted crowds of Gladiator and the Star Wars prequels, which fill the frame with all the presence of TV static. More recently, the incoherent sound and fury of the recent Transformers films has promoted the idea of digital effects as pricey but lifeless.
And the public has praised films willing to go the extra mile to stick with real, physical sets, props, and stunts. During the press tour for The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams loved mentioning how much of the new universe was built with blood, sweat, and tears. Likewise, George Miller scored an Oscar nod for how much he was able to pull off with Mad Max: Fury Road; those gonzo polecats were live stuntmen strapped into real cars in the actual Namib Desert. But while CGI isn’t a substitute for reality, Besson proudly reminds us that neither form is inherently superior to the other, and that CGI has its own separate value.
Valerian’s chief virtue is its muchness, the staggering volume of bustle Besson crams into every frame. One review astutely compared the film to “an entire decade’s worth of sci-fi space epics [projected] on the same screen, at the same time.” It doesn’t matter if Besson is only visiting a given world for two minutes, he fully and logically develops the style of each one — from a beachside enclave living in giant conch shells to a desert zone with rainbow-colored cotton candy clouds. For no other reason than because he can, Besson walks the audience through the outlay of the massive space station Alpha, fleetingly showing the underwater energy-harvesting district and the skyscraper-sized motherboards containing all the universe’s knowledge that is tended to by tiny maintenance-bots.
These two shots serve no narrative purpose. They improve the film only by expanding its scale. That sense of bigness is the feeling on which so much good science fiction has been founded. It doesn’t seem likely, given Valerian’s poor box office showing, that it’ll spawn 10 sequels. But its closest ancestor is still Star Wars, and the big, messy universe that series has created.
Nobody would claim Valerian looks “realistic,” but that isn’t Besson’s goal. He likes the aesthetic of artifice, and he recognizes how it enables and suits his teeming space metropolis. Alpha is supposed to be the pinnacle of intelligent development, a peaceful space where all life forms have gathered to share their knowledge and wares. He uses his full arsenal of effects to clutter Alpha with little signifiers of the melting-pot ethos that precipitated its creation, and the high-gloss sheen of digital cinema leaves it looking a touch more futuristic, another step removed from our present.
Besson’s exuberant, overflowing imagination is the decisive factor that separates Valerian from its automated digital brethren. So many directors have seen CGI as a shortcut that lets them create fire-hurricanes and mega-explosions, and handle all the tough work in post-production. Besson saw an opportunity to create more work for himself. Like any tool in the movie craftsman’s belt, CGI depends entirely on the skills and intentions of the artist wielding it, and Besson uses it to push the capabilities of the medium to their farthest limits.
He’s always harbored stratospheric, unruly ambition in his work. For example, 2014’s Lucy began as “Limitless, but with Scarlett Johansson” and ended as a theoretical philosophy lecture featuring Johansson reconfigured as a black cloud of swarming nano-droids. In that case, Besson used CGI to visualize an advanced form of consciousness, giving shape to conceptual wisps. With Valerian, he’s once again ventured into territory unattainable through traditional means, plumbing the deepest reaches of space with the same determined originality he brought to the contours of human perception.