Review: Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is a dazzling, dimwitted space opera
In his ludicrously entertaining 2014 science-fiction thriller, “Lucy,” the French director Luc Besson gave us a chemically enhanced action heroine with the rare ability to harness 100% of her brainpower. Besson’s latest futuristic whatsit, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” seems determined to induce the opposite effect in the viewer. When you enter the theater, you can pick up your 3-D glasses with one hand and drop off your brain with the other.
All in all, you might not consider it the worst exchange. A passion project for Besson, who has long wanted to film an adaptation of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic-book series “Valerian and Laureline,” this extravagant burst of feature-length silliness is the most expensive French production in film history. Certainly little of its $180-million shooting budget seems unaccounted for on the screen, which for 147 minutes becomes a riotous digital smorgasbord of multihued landscapes and gooey alien protuberances.
You might wish a bit more of that figure had been spent on basics — coherent storytelling, respectable performances, dialogue that doesn’t make “The Fifth Element” sound like Billy Wilder — but your appetite for eye-tickling psychedelia will be satisfied in ways it hasn’t been since at least “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.” And so long as we’re raiding the space-opera canon, it’s worth noting that if Besson’s movie awakens your nostalgia for early “Star Wars,” all credit should go to Christin and Mézières, whose 1967-2010 series has long been suspected as an uncredited influence on George Lucas’ (ahem) originals.
Which is not to say that “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” arriving 50 years after its source material was first published, is anything but a highly derivative pop bauble. Besson, an industrial-strength entertainer and the reigning maximalist of the European film industry, isn’t selling originality so much as volume. He has made a madly overstuffed Mos Eisley Cantina of a movie, one that surveys its diverse alien constituencies with the wide-eyed wonderment of a small child and the attention span to boot.
In the first and wittiest sequence, set to “Space Oddity,” Besson zips across decades and centuries to show how various far-flung civilizations glommed on to the International Space Station, ultimately forming Alpha, a floating megalopolis and a gloriously utopian vision of interspecies coexistence. From there the story shifts to a distant planet called Mül, where we land sometime during the 28th century to spend a few minutes with the peace-loving, beach-dwelling locals.
The people of Mül are striking, statuesque figures with shimmery skin and Na’vi-like features, and they live in giant conch shells and wash their faces with iridescent sea pearls (which must save them a lot on moisturizer). They maintain their life of harmony and prosperity with the help of cute, free-roaming pets known as converters, which have the power to magically replicate anything they ingest.
Sadly, Mül’s sun-drenched, screensaver-worthy paradise is blown to smithereens within minutes by an aerial invasion that, after “Dunkirk,” represents the second most impressively staged beach attack to appear in a motion picture this week. It’s a tragic development, not just because genocide is a bummer, but also because it forces us to spend the remaining two hours or so with the movie’s protagonists, a pair of sassy young space cops named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne).
Watch the trailer for “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
These two special agents, whom we see cavorting in their swimwear before they strap on their ray guns and jet-propelled spacesuits, happen to be lovers as well as colleagues. That would be a tolerable enough arrangement (for us, I mean) if they weren’t saddled with Besson’s idea of romantic space-noir banter, which they deliver with all the heat and conviction of understudies in a high school production of “The Thin Man.”
Both actors have been memorable elsewhere, but DeHaan evinces little of the edgy charisma he brought to “Chronicle” and “Kill Your Darlings,” while Delevingne, so good in the underseen “Paper Towns,” has all the makings of a kick-ass Besson heroine but none of the right material. Her exasperated comebacks are especially stilted (“This is going to be a lot of … fun!”) in a screenplay that at times sounds as though it had been written in French and then fed through Google Translate.
Valerian, apparently something of a ladies’ man, keeps asking the hard-to-get Laureline to marry him — a charmingly old-fashioned proposition in such dazzlingly newfangled times. (If I were Laureline, I’d consider that pretty lousy compensation for being evicted from the title of my own movie, but never mind.) Up until a crushingly sincere, deeply Bessonian monologue about the power of love, marriage basically gives these two something to argue about as they hop from one planet to the next, all as part of their daring mission to show off the latest advances in CGI technology.
In one of the movie’s more enchanting non sequiturs, Rihanna turns up as Bubble, a pole-dancing shapeshifter, or maybe a shapeshifting pole dancer.
A plot, somehow both arbitrary and convoluted, does eventually materialize, involving a top-ranking Alpha commander (Clive Owen, stern) and a bizarre abduction scheme, but none of it is worth Mülling over. There’s no real point in gathering your narrative bearings when you see Valerian being hurled through a series of interdimensional portals, swimming through murky green waters one minute and tumbling down a gleaming crystal mine shaft the next, in a sequence that suggests a Sherwin-Williams color wheel come to life.
What else? Let’s see … [flipping through notes] … a virtual-reality bazaar. A Jabba the Hutt-like blob. Illegal immigration subtext. Refugee crisis subtext. Ethan Hawke as a cowboy pimp with piercings and guyliner. Duck-billed monkeys. Jellyfish anus. Rihanna! Of course. In one of the movie’s more enchanting non sequiturs, Rihanna turns up as Bubble, a pole-dancing shapeshifter, or maybe a shapeshifting pole dancer, who can impersonate any species but otherwise reverts to a bluish, rubbery original form (picture “X-Men’s” Mystique as a Jell-O mold and you’re halfway there).
At times Bubble has to climb onto Valerian’s shoulders in order to disguise them both, in scenes that sadly omit the punch line “You can stand under my umbrella.” There’s no denying that “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is something to see, but even with Rihanna and Herbie Hancock onboard, it’s nothing you want to listen to.
‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’
Rating: PG-13, for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: In general release
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