Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Soldiers search a spaceship colony for dangerous rebels in Luc Besson's defiantly loopy sci-fi adventure.
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The good, which is sometimes spectacular, outweighs the bad, which is never that terrible, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Touted as the most expensive independent film ever made, Valerian is an uneven sci-fi extravaganza so eager to win over viewers that it often forgets what it's supposed to be doing. Full of missteps and bad choices, it's also fun in ways movies rarely are anymore.

Based on the Valérian and Laureline comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, the movie focuses on bickering young superhot soldiers who would fall in love if they weren't so needy and/or angry. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is cocky and obtuse in the manner of annoying French dudes who used to smoke Gauloises. Laureline (Cara Delevingne) is haughty and disdainful, Valerian's intellectual superior, someone who, according to movie iconography, is primed to lose her heart.

The two are first seen sunning on an artificial beach, arguing over his insincerity, previous conquests and lack of discipline. They are off-putting like all beautiful, conceited young lovers are, but here's the thing: Once you get to know them, they kind of grow on you. Laureline may look no-nonsense, but she's got a real sense of humor, and great timing. Valerian may be every self-centered dweeb fanboy rolled into one, but he puts himself on the line when he has to.

There's a plot, too. First about spaceships attacking a tropical paradise where lissome alien supermodels eat pearls or something, then about rebels endangering a spaceship colony so large it has a "thousand planets." Mostly Valerian is a chase—across deserts, through ductways, underwater, and, this being Luc Besson, into mildly déclassé nightclubs.

Besson can't resist piling on. The Fifth Element was the same way, an intriguing story overwhelmed by art direction run amok and a braying, terminally unfunny Chris Tucker. Every now and then someone like Ian Holm would pop up. Holding things together better than they should have: superhot lovers Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis.

Valerian has more integrity, and less buoyancy, than The Fifth Element. For class there's Clive Owen and Rutger Hauer. Oh, and Herbie Hancock. For cheese there's Ethan Hawke as a would-be pimp. And for cheesecake there's Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien who dons fishnets and schoolgirl uniforms while pole-dancing. Should you wonder why Laureline battles villains in a bikini top?

That said, there's a purity to Besson's filmmaking, an intense desire to provide wonder and stimulus, that gives Valerian the innocence of an old Saturday-afternoon serial. Things keep happening, some sexy, some funny, some exciting, some ludicrous. That same instinct propelled the pre-corporate Star Wars and early Indiana Jones, and you can find nods or inspiration or outright theft from those movies throughout Valerian.

Besson addresses the anti-special-effects brigade by employing augmented reality in one chase, deliberately emphasizing the movie's trickery. He also makes pro-immigrant, pro-tolerance, pro-environmental statements that are actually pretty smart. But primarily he tries to make the case that these two superhot antagonists are made for each other, and should come back for another adventure.

Fans of the comic books have complained that Dane DeHaan isn't macho enough for Valerian, but he slides by on his quasi-DiCaprio looks and Keanu Reeves vocal inflections. Like Jovovich before her, Cara Delevingne is the find here, smart, sassy, and fun to be around. (The two share some scenes in The Weinstein Company's upcoming over-the-counter sedative Tulip Fever.)

Valerian isn't groundbreaking, revolutionary science fiction. It's not even in a league with Lucy, which had its own problems. But taken on its own terms, this trip is bright, splashy fun.

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