It was while making “The Fifth Element” that vibrant French madman Luc Besson realized his real calling was to adapt the futuristic “Valerian and Laureline” comic book he’d read as a child, but it took another 20 years for technology to catch up to his vision for the story’s many exotic monsters and alien planets. Two decades was not enough time, however, for Besson to become a good enough writer to produce a screenplay worthy of the dazzling fantasy worlds he now had the tools to create.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is big, unabashedly geeky fun, more fantasy than sci-fi (more “Star Wars” than “Star Trek”), full of colorful aliens and flamboyant minor characters. Several hundred years in the future, cocky rogue Maj. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his rule-following partner-girlfriend, Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne), are sent on a peace-keeping mission to Alpha, a man- and alien-made planet-sized city that’s home to 30 million beings (including 9 million humans) representing a huge diversity of life from around the galaxy. A radioactive threat of some kind has emerged at the core of the city, and it may be related to the strange vision Valerian had in which a woman from a dying planet sent him an energy pearl. (Spoiler: it is related to that.)
Besson’s world-building is visually astonishing as he vividly (and expensively) creates planets, species, and gadgets out of nothing and makes it look natural. Many of the story’s details, presumably lifted from the comics, are a nerdy delight: Valerian popping in and out of an alternate dimension to entrap a black-market dealer; a suit that responds to all of Alpha’s different climates and enables Valerian to break through walls; a chubby reptile called a Converter that poops out duplicates of whatever it eats, including energy pearls; a shapeshifting space-prostitute (played by Rihanna, with space-pimp Ethan Hawke) who can take the form of any creature but prefers to take the form of Rihanna. There’s an entertaining — and, from a narrative standpoint, completely unnecessary — tangent where Valerian has to rescue Laureline from oafish, human-hating aliens. There’s a trio of small elephant-trunked platypus-like creatures who sell information and finish each other’s sentences. Besson is clearly having a great time.
Two things keep the film from being excellent instead of merely OK. One is that Besson has no ear for dialogue (in English, anyway; maybe he’s great in French), which is a detriment in a 137-minute movie with a lot of talking. When Laureline points a gun at an informant and says, “If you don’t tell me where to find Valerian, this bullet is going to find you,” well, that’s as clever as the screenplay gets. The film has moments that are exciting, amusing, or clever, but it’s rarely because of anything someone said.
The other problem is Dane DeHaan, a baby-faced (yet somehow baggy-eyed) log who is completely wrong to play a swaggering, self-assured bad boy with a history of romantic conquests. DeHaan’s Valerian, with his young Keanu voice and unearned arrogance, comes across like a soft, douchy frat boy, not a charming hero. His romance with Laureline, which the movie already treats like an afterthought, is unconvincing; DeHaan and Delevingne barely seem to like each other. That’s going to be a problem in the unlikely event that “Valerian” earns enough money to justify a sequel.
And that’s disappointing. There’s much to admire and enjoy here, and the stage is set for deeper mythology and greater adventures. But hey, they reboot Spider-Man every couple of years, so why not Valerian?
B- (2 hrs., 17 min.; )