In case you were worried that Luc Besson might stop making completely bonkers films, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets should ease your concerns. This unholy mashup of Avatar, the Star Wars Mos Eisley cantina scene, Fury Road, and every mediocre rom-com you’ve ever seen, is packed with numerous mind-blowing and entertaining moments. It’s also packed with numerous mind-numbing and stupid moments. I’ll say about Valerian what is often said about the Baltimore weather: If you don’t like it, wait a minute.
The film, which is based on the French science fiction comic series Valérian and Laureline, takes place in the 28th century. Valerian, which happens to be the name of a human, not a planet (quelle surprise!) is played by Dane DeHaan. His girlfriend/space-cop partner, Laureline, is played by Cara Delevingne. They’ve been tasked with protecting the last of a precious endangered species and stopping an imminent radiation attack on the massive space station Alpha, the thousand-planet “city” of the title.
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The mediocre rom-com part comes from the flirty, sparring relationship between Valerian and Laureline. He keeps asking her to marry him, she keeps refusing because he’s apparently too much of a player. The partners also keep topping each other in derring-do, an aspect of the film I actually liked. (If anything, she’s more badass then he is.) In some ways, they’re the space version of Titanic’s Jack and Rose, because they’re constantly getting separated and then looking for each other. (This analogy is heightened by the fact that DeHaan looks a lot like a young Leo.)
On her own, Laureline barters for intel from these shifty and funny space moles, roundkicks some clueless guards into submission, and gets a glimpse at Valerian’s whereabouts by sticking her head up a mystical jellyfish’s butt (ah, what she’ll do for love). On his own, Valerian watches a pole dance by a shape-shifting stripper named Bubbles (Rihanna), in a brothel run by Ethan Hawke, in punk P.T. Barnum garb. Rihanna, by the way, is one of the best things in the film and, while Besson had the good sense to slow the film down and give her a moment to shine, he should’ve used her even more. (Indeed, I would’ve preferred an entire film about Rihanna's alien shapeshifter and her sketchy, libertine pimp.)
There are also these beautiful, glowy aliens from the utopian planet Mül, who look like pale versions of James Cameron’s Avatar creatures on a serious low-carb diet. They’re the ones who hosted the now-endangered (semi-cute) aardvark-like creature that Valerian and Laureline are protecting: Its special power is that it poops out hundreds of whatever substance it eats. (No, really).
There are also lots of virtual reality chase scenes that I couldn’t totally follow and Clive Owen, poor bastard, in tow as a stern commander who may as well wear a sign around his neck that says, “I am the bad guy.”
I want to take a moment to discuss the leads because they’re…not good. DeHaan has certainly been good in other things—Chronicle and Kill Your Darlings, to be specific—but he’s a bit lost here. Vocally, he seems to be channeling Keanu Reeves, an odd choice. (Yes, Keanu starred in many of the biggest action films of our time, but it was because of his majestic beauty and graceful bearing, not because of his affectless, surfer-bro voice.) Honestly, seeing a good actor like DeHaan struggling with this cavalier, winking action hero type made me appreciate the work Chris Pratt does in the Galaxy movies that much more. As for the somewhat aloof, model-turned-actress Delevigne, she does the “hard to get” stuff pretty well, but is less convincing in the warming up part.
Still, Valerian is frenetic, trippy, ludicrous fun. Except for when it’s not fun. But then it’s fun again! And then not fun! Well…you get the picture.