Review: Luc Besson's 'Valerian', Wasted Potential Never Looked So Good

I am and forever will be a fan of Luc Besson. The French director, whose style is VERY French indeed, will perhaps always be known for his stylish assassin flicks, such as La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and The Transporter movies such as they are. While his way with comedy leaves much to be desired, mostly because it is, again, VERY French, Besson makes some gorgeous movies. Ever seen The Big Blue? It's absolutely stunning. Besson also has a fondness for sci-fi, particularly big, sweeping space operas. The Fifth Element is a cult classic for combining Besson's over-the-top visuals with his offbeat, often bizarre sense of humor. It was a movie that put so much stuff on the screen that you could watch it now and still find something new.

It's got nothing on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian is like spending two hours in the Mos Eisley cantina while all of the TVs are set to episodes of Moonlighting. And you're high on whatever the drug du jour is on Tatooine. There are what appear to be hundreds of wildly different alien species populating the screen at any given time. All of them are colorful, weird, spiky, slimy, disgusting, pretty much every adjective under the rainbow. What more do you expect from a "city of a thousand planets"? In terms of the massive ambition, the incredible scale Besson has put on display here, it's on the level of James Cameron and George Lucas. Every new environment brings with it new wonders, one may be an eco-paradise, another a glowing underwater civilization, and another a technological hive buzzing with computer beings. It's clear that Besson used every dime of the reported $200M budget, the biggest in European cinema history.

If only the same amount of attention was spent on Besson's paradoxical script, which manages to be too dense and razor thin at the same time. Thin are the characters, of course; temporal agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who flirt, squabble, and get into one dangerous predicament after another. Valerian is a cocky hothead, and apparently a ladies' man (Something new for DeHaan to play, at least), but he's also one of the best agents in the universe. He can do just about anything, except win Laureline's heart. Awwwww shucks. The duo find themselves protecting Alpha, a gigantic space station of over 30 million inhabitants from thousands of different races. A deadly threat connected to a long extinct race has risen up, and Valerian has been specially selected to stop it.

That's about as loose of a plot description as it can get for a movie this thick with subplots and non-sequitors and throwaway characters, all distracting from what should be a simple sci-fi adventure romp. But it's as if Besson is so busy filling the screen with whatever peculiar creature he just dreamed up that he forget to fill the heads of his lead characters. Valerian is the classic Besson tough guy, which means he's like a jock from a 1980s teen comedy. He's abrasive, handsy, and arrogant to the point that you want to punch him. DeHaan isn't bad in the role but I don't know if it was the right part for him, necessarily. Better is Delevingne as the more emotionally-centered Laureline. I think it would be generous to say that Delevingne underplays nearly all of her performances but here it works, especially as a foil to DeHaan. Others who pop up inexplicably are the great Herbie Hancock, who probably filmed his scenes over Skype he has so little to do; and Ethan Hawke as a strangely off-the-wall pimp. Rihanna jiggles her bubble as Bubble, a shapeshifting burlesque dancer, and Clive Owen chews up scenery Shoot 'em Up-style as Commander Fillit, who looks like he's entering an M. Bison cosplay contest.

For all of its visual splendor, Valerian gives us so little to actually grapple with emotionally. We meet Valerian and Laureline while they're relaxing on a simulated beach, and about two minutes later he's proposing marriage. This is apparently a thing we're expected to believe is hanging over them throughout their life-or-death mission, but why should we care? It would be one thing if Besson put in effort to build up their relationship, but then there's more stuff he needs to show off and doing both is apparently impossible.

But man, that stuff is crazy cool. In one of the opening missions, Valerian and Laureline land on a desert planet with a hidden market full of crazy species and unusual objects. While there, Valerian uses a device that essentially lets him walk between reality, appearing in one location where the action is while he's "safely" miles away with Laureline by his side. The effect is amazing and so much of the film will have you sitting slack-jawed at how incredible it looks. Then somebody will say or do something utterly pointless and you'll chuckle at the vast disparity in quality.

There's so much to admire about Valerian from a technical standpoint that you almost want to forgive everything else that is so wrong with it. You'll keep waiting for the light switch to turn on and for Besson to fully realize Valerian's immense potential. But after a couple of hours you'll find that forgiveness and patience can only travel so far.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5