If you are a person who gets excited about Rihanna playing a shape-shifting alien named Bubble doing a stripper routine in the middle of a $180 million sci-fi epic from the director of The Fifth Element — and, really, who wouldn’t be? — you are in luck. RiRi’s face may only appear in Luc Besson’s visual smorgasbord, Valerian, for five minutes (although her character’s in it for about 20; it’s complicated), but that’s plenty of time for her to totally steal the movie.
Reviews for Valerian so far have ranged from delighted to earth-eviscerating, but I think we all can agree that the guy who turned his nose up at “a wholly superfluous cameo from Rihanna” is a guy who does not understand joy. That’s like saying that a photo of Rihanna casually riding a Jet Ski sidesaddle was a wholly superfluous thing that popped up in your Twitter feed this week, rather than a glorious burst of happiness that gave you the strength to finish your day. Rihanna in Valerian has the power of a million sidesaddle Jet Ski photos and you should refuse shelter under your umbrella to anyone who tries to diminish that.
As we found out last summer at Comic-Con, Rihanna plays Bubble, a performer at a sex club run by Ethan Hawke that Valerian (Dane DeHaan) ducks into on his way to save civilization. The posters and trailer for Valerian may prepare you for Rihanna doing a cabaret dance in a bowler hat that she throws off to instantly transform into a sexy Halloween nurse.
And if you’ve peeped Rihanna’s Instagram, you also know that her character has a bunch of other amazing costumes. But it’s one thing to have a vague idea of Rihanna as a kind of red-light-district Mystique, and another to see her do her CGI-assisted thing in a whirl of costume changes, backbends, and feats of flexibility that will leave you convinced Rihanna actually can do a full standing split on a stripper pole. (The woman can ride a Jet Ski sidesaddle, so are you sure she can’t?)
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
Bubble isn’t just a spectacular creature, though; she’s a literal illegal alien who’s been sold into forced cabaret slavery. Topical! Heart-wrenching! What’s more, there’s a moment when Bubble looks at Valerian, tears and insecurity welling in her eyes as she whispers, “You really liked my performance?” that sold me on Rihanna as a thespian who’s capable of emoting with or without the aid of special effects. In that look, we understand Bubble’s need to be recognized as a true artist; I’m half convinced we catch a glimpse of the real Rihanna beneath that pop-superstar exterior in that moment as well.
“Some people doubt that she can act, but in the film, she proved that she can act,” Besson told Vulture recently. From everything her co-stars and director have said, the woman works mad hard and she really, really wanted this role. Besson has talked about her giving her opinion on every costume, and making time for him even if it had to be at 2 a.m., with another meeting after that.
And then she spends most of the rest of her screen time voicing a really ugly CGI alien that’s a cross between a hammerhead shark and a bipedal hippo.
It’s a testament to Rihanna’s enormous presence that you really feel it’s her even when she’s mo-capping a squishy blue alien. And even more of a testament that, at one point, Bubble transforms into Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, and all I can remember is a feeling of profound disappointment.
In a week we’ll know how American audiences will take to Valerian’s distinctly French-eccentric style of blockbuster. I’ll put in my vote now for a Bubble origin story. I want to see teenage Bubble shape-shifting hormonally, and 20-something Bubble leading a resistance of illegal aliens, and more Rihanna, period. And I want RiRi to take the next step in her film career and join up with a director who could tease something great out of her. If this taste of Bubble is all we get, though, it is still magnificent. May it inspire you to shine bright like a diamond, and ride your own Jet Ski sidesaddle evermore.