French filmmaker Luc Besson has always been impossible to pigeonhole. Throughout his impressively long career, he’s been equally drawn to the muscular and the whimsical. On one end of the continuum are his pulpy, ultraviolent action flicks like The Professional, the Taken films (which he produced), and most recently, Lucy. On the other end are the trippy, sugar-shock sci-fi fantasias like The Fifth Element and the new Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. In a sense, the box-office success of the former have allowed him to indulge the latter. All of those bloody knuckle sandwiches pay for his cosmic cotton candy.
When The Fifth Element came out 20 years ago, it was so strange (space aliens in ancient Egypt, Bruce Willis and his flying taxicab, Milla Jovovich’s and her flame-haired squeak gibberish) that it took American audiences a while to really catch up with it. It was a commercial disappointment that gradually snowballed into a cult hit. Once dismissed, it’s now beloved. If I had to make a prediction, I’d guess that Valerian will suffer a similar fate. Its imagination is so outré and wild and its rhythms so idiosyncratic, that it’s easy to picture moviegoers not knowing what the hell to do with it until some far off date in the future. During the film’s intoxicating first 30 minutes, for example, I couldn’t decide whether what I was watching was brilliantly bonkers or total folly. Then, as the story went on, it came into sharper and sharper focus: Valerian is an epic mess.
But let’s be fair and go back to the good part: that first half hour. The film opens with a breathtaking montage scored to the slow build of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” First, it’s 1975, and we see the American Apollo and Russian Soyuz spacecrafts docking together for the first time. The astronauts shake hands, marking the end of the Cold War space race and the beginning of an era of cooperation in the heavens. Then the movie screen stretches out into widescreen for the birth of the International Space Station. Decade by decade, we see other nations now coming together in space, recreating that handshake of peace. Then centuries pass, and the next meeting isn’t just another international encounter, this is First Contact. We see a human welcoming party standing and waiting as they have in the past. Only this time, when the second craft’s doors open, out come aliens looking curiously at our outstretched palms. It’s a giddy and thrilling vision of the future and what may wait for us at the furthest reaches of the universe. And it sets a heady, lyrical, Bowie-fueled tone that the rest of the movie never matches. Not by a long shot.
Four hundred years later, we’re now on a planet called Mül. It looks like a Caribbean paradise with white sand beaches and turquoise waters. But it’s populated by a light-blue race of thin, elongated aliens right out of Avatar. Yes, they look as phony as any digitally animated movie (which, in a sense, I guess this sort of is). But you go with it. As these aliens coo in their gentle Babel language, frolic in the surf, and go about their peaceful lives, the skies open up and down comes fire and destruction. Hundreds of Mül people race into an escape ship to evacuate, some get left behind. It’s kind of silly, but also kind of moving as their planet is destroyed.
Cut to a human snapping out of a dream. Was this all just a nightmare he had — or some sort collective-unconscious distress call sent to him? The human’s name is Valerian, and he’s played by a sleepy-eyed, monotone Dane DeHaan with all the charisma and energy of a narcoleptic about to nod off. Valerian is a cocky space cop for the United Human Federation on Alpha, a bulbous constellation of a thousand planets smushed together like a crazy quilt of glass beads. We are now in a 28th-century world created 50 years ago by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières in a series of French graphic novels, but the vision on screen is pure Besson—beautiful, baroque, and a bit bananas. As for the story that’s about to unspool, it’s a fairly rote MacGuffin-adventure about a small-fish hero and his plucky partner, fellow space cop Laureline (Cara Delevingne), tarted up with the best effects money can buy, a freaky menagerie of Mos Eisley-style aliens, miles of bad dialogue, and jokes that feel like they somehow got lost in translation.
Valerian and Laureline’s mission is to retrieve a “converter” and bring it back to their superior officer (Clive Owen), who we know is evil from jump street. The only question is how evil. This converter isn’t some fancy piece of machinery, but rather a cuddly armadillo-like alien animal that lays shimmery pearl eggs that are a power source for the thought-to-be-extinct people of Planet Mül. Got that? If not, don’t worry. Just substitute “Ark of the Covenant” or “Rosebud” or “Maltese Falcon” for the armadillo converter thing and you’ll be able to hack your way through the film’s laughable thickets of expositional gobbledygook. If your mind wanders (and it will), you’ll wonder how it’s possible that Besson put so much obsessive detail and care into his visuals and world-building and how little he’s put into his plot.
Still, the biggest problem with Valerian is…Valerian himself. The movie is cast badly. Both DeHaan and — to a lesser degree — Delevingne are all wrong. Maybe it’s a result of acting almost exclusively against a green screen, but both actors seem totally at sea. It’s easy to imagine how hard it must be to act opposite a sea of nothingness, but neither has anything close to the kind of commitment or conviction that someone like Bob Hoskins brought to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? DeHaan has managed to be good in bad movies before like A Cure for Wellness and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but here, when he’s not being smug or bratty, he just fades into his more colorful surroundings. To be fair, with such colorful surroundings, most young actors would do the same. Owen, surprisingly, can’t find any shades to work with, either. He’s a gruff one-note villain, and it doesn’t even look like he’s having fun being bad.
Valerian and Besson strain so hard to sizzle your retinas and knock you out with the film’s oddness that it eventually becomes numbing — and then just exhausting. By the time Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting cabaret entertainer and blows through a string of guises (roller-disco chanteuse, pole-dancing seductress, kitten-with-a-whip French maid), the whole thing just feels like a random WTF mess. Still, you have to give Besson credit for not playing it safe. He at least swings for the fences and doesn’t spoon-feed you the same old sci-fi clichés. That counts for something. Not enough, but something. And who knows, maybe a decade from now, Valerian will seem as ahead of its time as The Fifth Element was — your contrarian stoner buddy’s new favorite midnight movie. C–