1. Little splashes of a weirder, kinkier, much better movie kept popping up throughout Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and even though they tended to vanish as quickly as they appeared, I still found myself missing them. They’re like phantasms making quick cameos from the nether, a brief flicker of a more adventurous, less compromised movie that perhaps could have been. They’re in mysteriously gendered aliens who quite literally wear their expressions on their faces, or big galooting creatures who emote like silent cartoons from the ’20s, or Ethan Hawke doing a loopy five-minute bit as a cackling lunatic who pimps out aliens and plays a mean church organ. Valerian is clearly writer-director Luc Besson’s passion project, a massive sci-fi epic in which he seems to fire off every strange idea he’s ever had. But in getting the film made, he had to give it a traditional boy-girl storyline that is so boring that you slog through the exposition just for occasional glimpses of the good parts. There aren’t enough good parts.
2. The Valerian of the title is a young swashbuckling Han Solo-wannabe (Dane DeHaan), but the film should really be called Valerian and Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets, because Valerian’s cohort Laureline (Cara Delevingne) is more than his match. They’re partners working for an intergalactic government centuries from now led by Commander Filett (Clive Owen) that employs them to, I dunno, keep the galaxy safe or something. They end up stealing a McGuffin, which leads them to a race of aliens thought extinct trying to recreate their world after it was destroyed by a mysterious invasion years before. This leads them to all sorts of odd places on odd missions, flirting with each other while increasingly surreal species dot the landscape all around them.
3. The plot, like the movie, is long and complicated, too complicated by a considerable proportion. This is a problem partly because it’s not a particularly interesting one (it involves solving a mystery that the audience will have figured out in the first 15 minutes), but mostly because, well, it has two DOA leads on its hands. DeHaan can be a deeply charismatic actor—his breakout was in 2012’s Chronicle, and he’s particularly excellent in 2013’s beat drama Kill Your Darlings—but he’s totally lost here, going for a Harrison Ford-vibe but ending up looking callow and a little rattled. It’s an impossible character to play, and DeHaan looks like he knows it. Delevingne has an easier part—she juts her jaw out as The Underestimated Girl—but doesn’t do much with it. They both look like they’re playing dressup, and they have zero chemistry together. It’s a deadly combination because so much of the movie revolves around them. Besson tries to sell us on a hip romance with wisecracking teens, but everybody’s so strained and boring that every scene with the two of them together lands with a thud. And there are a lot of scenes with the two of them together.
4. Besson’s heart isn’t with their romance or their story anyway, and you keep watching his eye wander throughout the movie. It’s a relief every time it does. The movie is one crazy visual after another, and it’s clear that Besson wanted to make the movie for all the wild flourishes he could throw together. It’s telling that every time the movie goes rushing off into one of the various directions the plot requires it to, it keeps getting sidetracked by less important but much goofier, sillier tangents. When Valerian comes across Hawke’s tweaked pimp, and subsequently an alien performer/escort played by Rhianna, the movie slams the brakes on its narrative and just lets Rhianna play. The scene, in which she shapeshifts into different outfits and characters with the wave of her hand, is the unquestioned highlight of the movie, so good that you wish Besson had just let it be self-contained. But no, Rhianna joins the story in the next scene and instantly becomes a tenth as interesting. Valerian wants to be weird and sexy but just won’t let itself.
5. The movie plods along with its rote plot, pausing only occasionally to glimpse the scenery, and ends, once again, with those two mismatched, yawning leads. It’s a shame, because Valerian is the type of movie you find yourself wanting to root for. There’s an earnestness to it that is fetching; it’s obviously something Besson, who also wrote the script, has been wanting to make for a long time. And the visuals, and the visual inventiveness, often outpace Besson’s previous high-water mark in this realm, The Fifth Element. (Another film weighed down by rote humans.) But for all its pleasant diversions and happy wanderings away from the main story, eventually the movie has to get back on track, and it’s just another dull couple of kids trying to save the universe. This movie needs more cities and more planets, and less Valerian.
Starring: Dan DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, Rhianna, Herbie Hancock
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.