If there's one thing we know Fifth Element director Luc Besson can pull off, it's wildly fun over-the-top sci-fi, and he does not disappoint with Valerian—to a point. Whereas the world-building and CGI hits that utterly gorgeous sweet spot, Besson, who also helmed 1994 fan-fave Léon: The Professional, becomes mired in mediocre writing, a few goofy missteps and an almost-tired story about how big ol' government entities are always stepping on the little guy.
Valerian is adapted from the French serial comic Valérian and Laureline (which debuted in 1967) wherein we follow a brash young soldier named Valerian (here played by A Cure for Wellness' Dane DeHaan) and his underling partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne of Suicide Squad)—with whom our hero happens to have fallen in love. As the partners are swept up into the world of military buffoonery and action-packed space missions in and around the space station Alpha (a sprawling interstellar city that hosts living creatures from a thousand planets), they begin to question their superiors and step way outside protocol to right the wrongs of their people's past. Y'know, because they're good guys like that.
Alpha itself is gorgeous, a bizarre mix of Bladerunner and anime that almost hits video game territory in terms of scale and style, but still feels like a living, breathing metropolis. Diplomatic relations are tense, but Valerian and Laureline are, of course, not sticklers for the rules. They know right from wrong, which would grow tedious were it not for some stunning sequences that not only fall into ain't-it-cool territory, but show off Besson's imaginative ideas of future tech, aliens, etc. Sadly, however, the running time starts to push things, and a baffling mid-film music video featuring Rihanna (yes, that Rihanna) fails to recall the likes of that brilliant Fifth Element opera scene and instead feels like some confused film exec insisted on inserting more sex into the thing. An inter-dimensional market chase, however, is clever and original in a Futurama-like vein right down to an appearance from John Goodman's voice.
Regardless, for those seeking a fun time at the movies, this oughta do just fine if you don't go looking for anything deep or groundbreaking. Lasers are fired, the aliens look cool and the opening sequence to the tune of David Bowie is perfect. Perhaps Valerian doesn't become a giant leap for mankind, but it does hit the dizzying highs of space intrigue, and that's just how we like it.
- Love, schmove
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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by Besson
With DeHaan, Delavigne and Rihanna
Violet Crown, Regal, PG-13, 137 min.