The sci-fi epics of Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Lucy”) very often feel like the work of someone who understands certain rules of narrative storytelling but willfully decides they don’t matter. He leads the audience through a cavalcade of gorgeous imagery even though the plots don’t hold together, certain performances are pitched to an insanely outsized degree, and the pacing goes from exhilarating to just exhausting.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” might well represent the apotheosis of Besson’s singularly loony brand of filmmaking. It’s bonkers and gorgeous and confusing and thrilling and tiring and overflowing with ideas. This is the kind of movie that soars beyond adjectives like “good” or “bad”: It’s sincere but overstuffed, visually gorgeous but dramatically clunky, and it represents a singular vision while simultaneously featuring two wildly miscast actors in the lead roles. More on them in a moment.
What, you may ask, is a city of a thousand planets? In this movie’s version of reality, the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz hookup was just the beginning of a gargantuan space station that first included astronauts from all over Earth before expanding to include new alien life forms who flew in and attached themselves. When the satellite grew to such enormous size that it threatened to crash into the planet, the city was cut adrift to fly through the universe with its numerous alien populations peacefully coexisting.
Cut to 400 years later: Bob Marley and the Bee Gees have apparently lost none of their popularity, and spies Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are off on a dangerous, inter-dimensional mission to capture a nearly-extinct animal who might well change the order of the universe. (There’s no putting too fine a point on this: Said animal is an armadillo-like creature that poops pearls.)
After years of leaving broken hearts in his wake, Valerian wants his partner to marry him, but she remains unconvinced. Nonetheless, their banter must be put on hold as they get drawn into a mystery involving a lost race (of bald, gleaming aliens with skin like abalone), possible war crimes, shimmering planets that look like van paintings, killer robots, alien stool pigeons and mind-reading jellyfish.
The plot — and there’s tons of it — takes a back seat to the many worlds writer-director Besson wants to take us to, from a bustling, multi-level market straight out of “Blade Runner” to an interstellar dogfight that summons memories of “Star Wars.” Besson is adapting the legendary French comic book “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, which previously influenced those two science-fiction classics and countless other movies that followed in its wake.
Not unlike the recent “John Carter” movie — an adaptation that felt painfully familiar because so many other films and comic books had already been borrowing from the original stories over the course of the 20th century — much of “Valerian” can’t help but feel old-hat because its source material has already been picked over by other creators. (There’s also an occasional whiff of another film based on ’60s French sci-fi comics: “Barbarella.” And our heroes’ future-resort-wear reminded me of the bizarre “The Day the Fish Came Out.”)
Besson tackles the material with a tireless eye for splendor and a game sense of humor, although with both he often doesn’t know when to quit. For every exceptional action sequence — Valerian and a shape-shifting exotic dancer (played by Rihanna, game and effective) rescue Laureline from a death that involves both high fashion and haute cuisine — there are so many chases and close calls that my brain wanted to dash out to the lobby for some Twizzlers. And does this film end with a giant digital read-out of a clock counting down to an explosion? You bet your sweet 25th century it does.
There’s no faulting Besson for ambition here; he’s madly reaching out for every brass ring, and all the poles they’re suspended from, and for me, at least, there’s a real appeal to big gambles that don’t entirely pay off. (Mind you, I was quoted on the “Jupiter Ascending” Blu-ray, and I rewatch “The Apple” at least once a year, so your taste for this kind of outsized and occasionally misguided effort may differ from mine.) Even when “Valerian” wasn’t working for me, I never stopped admiring what Besson was trying to accomplish.
Of course, he might have gotten closer to his goals had he recast his leads. DeHaan is a very fine young actor, but winking roguishness isn’t quite in his wheelhouse; he’d be a great young Palpatine, but he’s no 20-ish Han Solo. (At one point, Valerian tells Laureline, “I’m a soldier. I follow orders. It’s who I am,” and it’s one of the most singularly unconvincing lines of dialogue I’ve heard lately outside of a White House press briefing.)
As for Delevingne, she’s supposed to be every bit Valerian’s match as both a government agent and as a lover, but she too often reads as peevish or unconcerned. Delevingne and DeHaan don’t ever generate much in the way of sparks here, but they’re both so beautifully (and similarly) androgynous in a couture-magazine-ad way that you want to see them tackle a bold remake of “Persona.”
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is the kind of movie that’s going to generate fervent fans (and equally adamant detractors), to say nothing of enthusiastic cosplayers. It may not immediately wow mass audiences, but it’s the sort of weird and wonderfully well-intentioned misfire that will remain a cult favorite long after many of today’s hits are forgotten. That might not placate Besson’s investors, but he’s strengthened his status as one of this generation’s leading crazypants auteurs.