Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets begins with a montage set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, detailing the rise and growth of a space station called Alpha in orbit over Earth. The film presents a parade of meetings aboard the station, first among different human cultures, then alien species. Fast forward 400 years later, Alpha has now traveled millions of miles from Earth, and is home to thousands of different species. And on this station, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara DeLevingne) investigate a mysterious abduction that involves the survivors of a cataclysm and a past that some want to remain buried.
One need not be too concerned about following the story of this movie, because there is hardly any. This is not exactly a point against it, though. There is merit to the film’s looseness, and pleasures to be found in its willingness to abandon plot in favor of chasing some flight of fancy. At the very least, it results in mad, memorable sequences that showcase more imagination than is usually allowed in a big-budget blockbuster. But there does come a point where the film starts to struggle with its lack of direction, leading to a deflating climax that feels like a sad obligation.But for a while, it’s really fun. The first big action sequence is completely bonkers: a chase through an extradimensional marketplace that can’t be perceived or touched with special equipment. It is a sequence that can’t properly be described with words, and that must be worth something. It may not always be entirely clear what exactly is going on, but there’s such weird, infectious energy to all of it that one can’t help but be awed. This is clearly Luc Besson putting it all on the table, the French director using up his craziest, most out-there ideas in hopes of doing justice to the sci-fi books that inspired so much of his work.But while it’s worth getting caught up in that kind of passion, it isn’t quite enough to sustain the film throughout its fairly lengthy runtime. And all the crazy visuals don’t do anything to help the thin characterization, or the severe lack of narrative momentum. It never feels like the movie is headed anywhere in particular, and the characters don’t really feel like they’re entirely invested in whatever it is that they’re doing. And by the end, none of it really makes any sense. The big revelations can be seen from a mile away, even though the script keeps the details loose and vague to the point of absurdity.The film also suffers a bit from its two leads. Dane DeHaan is a decent actor, but he is terribly miscast as Valerian. The character sounds like he was written for a classic 80s or 90s action star; someone with immediate physical swagger. DeHaan’s talent is clear enough, but he just isn’t able to sell these lines. And Cara DeLevingne just isn’t good enough to make Laureline feel like an equal player. To be fair to the young actress, the writing doesn’t help, but one can easily imagine a stronger presence being able to at least give the character some weight. The show is inevitably stolen by the supporting cast, who are able to display much more personality than the two leads. In the few minutes that he’s on screen, Ethan Hawke just consumes the frame. And Rihanna, as a shapeshifting pole dancer, owns the most memorable part of the movie.Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is fun in moments, but frustrating on the whole. For better or worse, this whole thing feels like Luc Besson was just given license to go nuts, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create the most insane visuals that he could think of based on a property that he genuinely loves. And that sometimes results in something genuinely beautiful and awe-inspiring. But Besson working without limitations tends to mean that substance is completely forgotten. And there just comes a point when all this excess starts to feel tiring.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.