“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”
When even most of the good spectacles carry a strong whiff of prepackaging, try taking in the air of Luc Besson’s sci-fi extravaganza “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
Its atmosphere — vibrant in color, elastic in form — takes some acclimating to after such a barrage of more sanitized summer movies. Watching “Valerian” is to simultaneously and acutely realize what’s missing from so many other big films (visual inventiveness, freewheeling unpredictability) and appreciate what the more controlled studio project does so much better (precision pacing, half-decent writing).
Had “Valerian” — a lifelong passion project for the French filmmaker that’s been called the most expensive indie film ever made — been produced in the studio system, it would have been better. But also worse.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” adapted by Besson from Pierre Christin and Jen Claude Mezieres’ comic book series, is just your average Dane DeHaan movie with extraterrestrial ducks, a pole-dancing Rihanna and a prominent cameo from Herbie Hancock — on hand, presumably, to channel the cosmic spirit of his album covers.
This one slides in somewhere on the spectrum of rococo science fictions like the Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending” or James Gunn’s more recent “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” These are worlds populated by a lavish and somewhat harmonious diversity of life forms. In the opening montage of “Valerian” (its best sequence), the commander of the sprawling space station Alpha welcomes over time a steady stream of every nationality of Earth and then alien species, too, greeting each with a handshake.
Eventually the station grows so large that it’s jettisoned into space. This wild, spinning metropolis of alien cultures on a metal sphere looks like a movie paradise. It’s a pity, then, that instead of some exotic protagonist we’re saddled with the altogether uninteresting Valerian (DeHaan), a brash special agent hotshot. DeHaan also starred earlier this year in Gore Verbinksi’s “Cure for Wellness” (one of the year’s other ravishing but questionably quixotic auteur-driven jumbles), and he has a definite presence: intelligently smarmy with a voice that I suspect even Keanu Reeves would find dubiously low.
He’s teamed with Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and their investigation soon has them digging into a tangled-up past, where suspicions of a covered-up genocide appear to implicate a military commander (Clive Owen). More words could be spent on the plot or the developing relationship between Valerian and Laureline, but there’s little reason to. Their chemistry is nonexistent, the dialogue is cringe-worthy and the story is clunky. The dark secret ultimately leads to a beach planet inhabited by what appears to be a pale, slender civilization of high-cheekboned runway models whose natural resources are magic, life-giving pearls that are pooped out by scaly little genial creatures. You know. That old game.
But the images are frequently extraordinary. There are popsicle-colored clouds of blue and red, glowing butterflies and teeming extraterrestrial creations. An immense bazaar exists invisibly on an arid planet, but when visitors put on a headset, they’re transported into a huge marketplace. From the outside it just looks like lost virtual-reality users wandering the desert.
Besson has been to space before. “The Fifth Element” had many of the same elements — a madcap melding of species, a big musical moment, a feast of color — but it was better organized and had the benefit of Bruce Willis in the lead. Yet “Valerian” is another level entirely in terms of visual splendor. I kept thinking: This movie would be fantastic on mute.