Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ arrival in theaters, the same year as The Fifth Element’s 20th anniversary, feels like cosmic karma. Luc Besson directed both films, and his late-1990s cult classic has a lot in common with the new celebration of his favorite childhood comic. Both are colorful takes on a science fiction future filled with fantastical creatures and brawling heroes.
Besson has said he will never make a Fifth Element sequel, and there’s a lot to be grateful for there. It’s hard to imagine that the original film’s charming kitsch would translate well on modern screens. Bruce Willis plays a retired special forces soldier, now stuck working as a taxi driver with a flying cab. After Leeloo, played by Milla Jovovich with Cheeto-orange hair, plummets into his ride in the greatest wedgie-suit of all time, the two embark on a quest to save their world.
It’s ridiculous and wonderful. Gary Oldman plays the film’s villain with a puzzling hairdo and a bad accent. Willis’ character is named Korben Dallas. (Korben! Dallas!) Chris Tucker shows up as a flamboyant radio show host, in a role originally intended for Prince. The film’s comedic sensibility, combined with its then-impressive visuals and off-kilter setting, gave it legs beyond its official era.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is no proper sequel to Besson’s 1990s masterpiece, but it captures some of that spirit. It theorizes that love is a force powerful enough to save entire races. It glamorizes the peculiarities of outer space and the races that inhabit it. Besson has the comfort of a much better toolbox and a larger playground to explore, and it shows in the movie’s visual sweep.
Many of its characters also appear to be echoes of Besson’s past work. Like Leeloo, Laureline — Valerian’s ass-kicking, wisecracking counterpart — is a more intriguing character than her blandly heroic partner. Her no-nonsense attitude, paired with her intelligence, moxie, and competence for combat and space travel make her a far more evolved hero. And where Leeloo was a sort of space manic pixie dream girl — a love interest for Willis, and a strange, mystical character with unclear motivations of her own — Laureline feels like a natural evolution. She’s still a clear character archetype, but a more modern one, at least.
Besson is also still in love with the spectacle of artists and performance. Where The Fifth Element featured an alien opera singer, or Tucker’s over-the-top Ruby Rhod, Valerian introduces Rihanna as a shape-shifting exotic dancer. Rihanna’s introductory scene is a beautifully shot, dance video-esque affair that has very little impact on the overall story. Her character is shuffled in and out so quickly that her entire character, and the sequence that involves her, all could have been cut entirely without affecting the story.
The evolution of Besson’s work isn’t always successful. Valerian has echoes of Willis’ Korben Dallas in his snarky attitude. He’s an action hero in the same light, a generic white-guy everyman to root for. But Dane DeHaan lacks Bruce Willis’ charisma and comedic sense. The problems with the character Valerian reflect the problems of the film Valerian. The movie trades in Fifth Element’s utter absurdity and replaces it with over-the-top seriousness. In the current era of films obsessed with either the brooding lead or the snarky sleep-around superhero, Valerian and Laureline should feel right at home. Instead, they come off as caricatures, one-dimensional characters who emphasize how tired these stereotypes they’re rooted in have become.
In theory, that should doom this film. But just because the movie takes itself seriously doesn’t mean viewers have to. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is best viewed as a beautiful play on the action genre, with some solid, entertaining action sequences. It’s the modern equivalent of The Fifth Element’s ‘90s camp: an action-packed film obsessed with creating cool and collected characters. It’s a perfect summation of today’s cinematic stereotypes, which means it can only get better with distance from the era of science fiction it’s accidentally satirizing.