Remember how your eyes popped the first time you saw Avatar? Well, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will elicit a similar response in terms of the breathtaking spectacle it delivers.

Adapted from the French comic book series Valerian and Laureline that Luc Besson loved as a boy, the director’s screen love letter is a world every bit as rich and vibrant as Pandora, and invested with the same streak of insanity that made The Fifth Element a cult hit.

It’s got Rihanna as a shape-shifting glam cabaret singer; a galactic marketplace that exists in another dimension; mind-sucking jellyfish and lethal butterflies; a gentle race of aliens who harvest pearls shat by a cute rodent-like creature… and that’s only a fraction of what’s in store. Imagine the Mos Eisley and cantina scene from Star Wars running for two hours and given a liberal coat of day-glo, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect.

Besson’s longtime-in-the-making passion project opens to the strains of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, as we watch an Earth space station evolve over the centuries into the City of the title: a cosmic-politan conglomeration of alien species and habitats that makes Babylon 5 look like a shuttlecraft. Pushed out of Earth’s orbit after becoming too immense, and rechristened Alpha, this galactic hub houses thousands of alien races working in unison for the benefit of all.

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After liberating a rare, armadillo-like creature from an alien mobster, space agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan, less intense than usual) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delivingne) are summoned to Alpha to investigate a dark zone at its heart, which could endanger its integrity. Traversing a fantastical geography teeming with exotic aliens, they must uncover the connection between this threat and a lost paradise planet called Mül.

The meandering plot and occasionally ropey dialogue are incidental to a film that’s predicated on visual aesthetics. Valerian is a creative supernova that’s stunning in every department; the combined output of Weta Digital, ILM and myriad other VFX houses have worked overtime to invest Besson’s space opera with incredible detail. You simply won’t know where to look first.

Besson has little regard for Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes and clichés, and that’s what makes his sojourns into the genre so outré and enjoyable. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is every bit as gaudy, goofy and Gallic as The Fifth Element (perhaps even more so) and is likely to similarly polarise opinion and become another cult favourite.

Light years from the current wave of creatively bereft blockbusters, it may not be perfect, but it’s the kind of cinematic universe we need right now.

In cinemas: August 10, 2017
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen
Directed by: Luc Besson