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The Oscars are, at least in theory, meant to be about acknowledging the best of the best of an art form. In practice this can result in little more than a tool for boosting the box office take of middlebrow dramas via a one night pageant that generates a thousand news stories questioning the performative wokeness of the wealthy people involved. Put that aside. On paper, this is about seeking out the cream of the Hollywood crop.
With that in mind let’s admit that sometimes an imperfect film, even a bad film, can do one thing amazingly well. The Academy themselves seem to know this. That is why it’s now factually correct to refer to ‘the Oscar winning Suicide Squad‘. We can argue about the great films that have been overlooked this year (Hi Good Time) but I would like to highlight the cruel snubbing of one particular film; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Valerian is not a great movie. It’s not even a particularly good one. Both the leads are miscast and it’s far too long for what it is. That said, when it comes to Production Design how on Earth, or any other planet, is Darkest Hour in contention while Luc Besson’s batty space Opera is left on the shelf?
Hugues Tissandier’s work on Valerian is an imaginative, playful and downright beautiful sight to behold. The movie’s much celebrated (by me) opening scene should serve as a wonderful illustration of what I mean.
In four minutes we’re introduced to humanity’s new International Space Station. A montage takes us through the various countries’ progress as, over time, all are welcomed and allowed make themselves at home and every new mission adds a little chunk to the floating city. As time passes the costumes and people change and, soon enough, they’re welcoming an array of alien housemates. As the hodgepodge infrastructure balloons, we’re told that it has outgrown Earth and so a swarm of helpful droids attach and push the facility off into the unknown. It’s a high camp ode to collective effort soundtracked by Bowie at his silliest and most earnest.
Tissandier and Besson draw on the comic book source material but apply plenty of their own obvious relish to the design so that it becomes infectious. The look of Valerian is willfully eclectic. It’s a mish mash of cultures and species; a bubblegum cosmopolitan sensibility that allows the film to throw any wild idea on screen with a budget to back it up. Hopping from one bizarre thing to another feels like spending an entire movie in the Star Wars cantina during Mardis Gras. Passing extras flash their peacock feathers at our hero, Rihanna plays a shape shifting, burlesque dancing alien named Bubble; a very Besson fallen woman/ingenue whose natural state looks like, well, a bubble. If you want Irish actor Gavin Drea, wearing a puka necklace running through a bazaar, warping through different dimensions to avoid a space beast this movie has that. If you want to see an adorable lizard puppy that lives in a shell house and shits pearls this movie has that too.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi can often make for some of the most creative on-screen design. These stories, by their nature, allow all kinds of wildly fanciful hijinks. The license to do this, though, does not mean that it’s easy to pull off. Valerian does one thing magnificently and should be recognised for it. Give me a mega budget Barbarella over a competent costume drama any day.