It's been twenty years since Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. Twenty years since Milla Jovovich was regrown from a severed hand and strapped into a Jean Paul Gaultier bandage outfit, ate multiple whole chickens, and decided the ideal person to teach her the universe-saving power of love was Bruce Willis. Twenty years since what might well be the most fabulously, weirdly extravagant science fiction movie of all time.
And while Besson's new film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, isn't good, necessarily, it is extremely Fifth Element-like, from the filmmaker's generally Euro-flavored style to the distinctive costuming, from the wild imagination to the wildly underwhelming romance. Here are six of the reasons Valerian is poised to fill that Fifth Element-shaped hole in your heart.
1. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets cost even more than The Fifth Element, which was, in 1997, the most pricey European film ever made.
Yes, that's adjusted for inflation (an original $90 million). Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets came in at a reported $180 million, making it the quite possibly the most spendiest indie of all time, and it's all there onscreen. All of it. It starts on a planet of supermodel-lithe pastel aliens who live in shells, wash their faces in pearls, and immediately get blown up. It's mainly set on Alpha, a space station 30 million strong, having grown over decades into a space for thousands of different human and alien cultures. There are a lot of expensive movies these days, but few of them look and feel as opulent as Valerian does, like there were no economic limits on the galaxies it was able to dream up.
2. Valerian, like The Fifth Element, is a movie about saving the world that can't seem to help drifting toward vacation.
Chalk it up to the general air of exorbitance. In The Fifth Element, Leeloo (Jovovich) and Korben (Willis) end up on the luxury space liner the Fhloston Paradise for reasons unimportant (what matters is that they get to hang out with Chris Tucker's outrageous talk show host Ruby Rhod). In Valerian, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are supposed to save Alpha but keep getting mired in interstellar red light districts and a giant multidimensional swap meet in the desert that they dress up for like it's space Coachella. Valerian has an even more garbled plot and less forward momentum than The Fifth Element does, but its digressions are way more fun than its main action anyway — like the subplot in which Laureline gets forced into a white dress and huge hat by blobby aliens who have her offer up the contents of her skull as an appetizer for their fussy emperor. Or when Laureline has to stick her head inside a giant psychic jellyfish. (In Valerian, everyone only wants Delevingne for her brain.)
3. Valerian also shares The Fifth Element's dizzying sense of space.
In The Fifth Element, Leeloo jumped off a ledge and into Korben's taxi for a chase that took them darting through the dozens of layers of flying traffic in futuristic New York City. Valerian does that sequence one better by having its title character ram through a wall and then crash rapidly through different layers in Alpha. He plunges through extraterrestrial orchards and underwater settlements and leaps into and out of a dozen different mini worlds the movie barely lets you see before sending Valerian spinning out into space. Action sequences should make use of as many dimensions as possible. And in that aforementioned swap-meet segment, there's a whole extra one the characters can only see when wearing special glasses. The result is a chase that takes place over a barren landscape in one dimension and a warren of cluttered city streets in another, with Valerian's arm stuck in a portable transporter in the former so that he can use his gun in the latter. It's as odd as it is innovative.
4. Which is good because the romance remains dismal.
The love story in Valerian may not be as jarring as then-42-year-old Willis wooing then-22-year-old Jovovich, who was playing a physically perfect being who was also basically a newborn. But it's about as unconvincing, with DeHaan playing a character who's supposed to be a womanizing swashbuckler and Delevingne playing the hypercompetent, hypereducated partner who puts up a show of resisting her partner's charms. The two come across as terribly…mini for these seen-it-all roles, like high schoolers putting on a production of His Girl Friday. The film is based on a French comic book series that presumably had more ramp up to its romance, but in Valerian, the flirty-bickering relationship feels like someone skipped to the end of a prolonged will-they-or-won't-they, with Valerian proposing marriage early on in a way that's as abrupt and chemistry-free as Korben defeating the forces of evil with a declaration of love.
5. But the point isn't the stories — it's the worlds, which are dazzling.
In Valerian, Besson treats Alpha as an extension of the teemingly diverse and dense vision of New York he presented in The Fifth Element. The space station, with even more alien races and even less structure, is a multi-species settlement that's distinctly organic and messy — humanity's place in the system, under a commander played by Clive Owen, is central but no longer guaranteed to be ascendent. It's a place where absurdity and wonder go hand in hand, and the film fills its screen to the brim with eye-catching imagery that's gone before we really have time to take it in — from the massive underwater creatures on which those jellyfish grow to the fishermen hunting for prey off a cliffside using butterflies as bait. So much of Valerian's and Laureline's scrabbling to save Alpha from a disaster involving possible terrorism feels tiresome because what we really want is to spend time on Alpha when it's not in danger of being destroyed.
6. Also Rihanna is the ultimate Fifth Element-worthy spectacle.
In terms of the size and scope of her role, she's the equivalent of Diva Plavalaguna, the alien opera singer played by Maïwenn Le Besco in the 1997 movie. But despite the briefness of her time on screen, Rihanna is the movie's greatest special effect, both because of the digital morphing she does during her dance number and because she's, you know, Rihanna. As a character named Bubble, she does a pole dance in which she shapeshifts into different looks, from French maid to schoolgirl to Cabaret to Marilyn Monroe. The film stops dead in admiration, and so should anyone viewing it. It doesn't matter how unnecessary the full number is to the larger plot — you don't watch The Fifth Element for its storytelling, you watch it for its joyous, ridiculous sense of place and style, and that's doubly true for Valerian — a movie that isn't nearly as memorable, but that works just fine as a tribute.