Clearly emboldened by the success of his most recent bonkers sci-fi extravaganza Lucy, which turned Scarlett Johansson into a crime-fighting super-brain fuelled by magic drugs, Luc Besson’s latest returns to the genre for what might be his most outrageously ambitious movie yet. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is not only based on a much vaunted comic strip (the Star Wars-Influencing Valérian and Laureline) and boasts enough eye-popping digital wizardry to rival Avatar, at $180million, it’s also the most expensively assembled independent movie ever released. In short, it’s a movie so colossally risky even James Cameron would need to think twice. The result is a surreal, neon candy-coated carnival of astounding imagination that’s irreparably marred by an almost complete absence of story or substance.
Besson’s visual audacity must be applauded. Like a toddler who’s been handed a fresh pack of sharpies and unleashed on a newly painted wall, the writer/director doesn’t hold back from allowing every outlandish idea that pops into his brain to splurge onto the screen as he constructs a world so vividly extravagant it makes Jupiter Ascending’s gaudy opulence look shabby and understated by comparison. A fluorescent menagerie of wonderfully weird creatures, the planet of interlocking space stations that is Besson’s primary playground is host to memory eating jellyfish, gossiping platypus, a shape-shifting Rihanna performing a strip tease and much more besides. Every frame is overflowing with bizarre and bewildering inventions, it’s impossible to absorb it all in one screening.
Not that repeated viewings are advised. For all the dazzling, ludicrously inventive visuals on show, everything else about this movie – the story, characters, pace and tone – thoroughly underwhelm to almost extraordinary levels. What little plot there is sees Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), intergalactic space cops who protect humanity throughout the cosmos while engaging in clunky flirtatious banter, attempt to prevent unseen nefarious forces from destroying Alpha A, the bulging megalopolis that’s home to more than 8,000 alien species. It’s a story as thin and flimsy as it sounds, with barely enough action to pad out its two-and-a-quarter-hour runtime. And yet it still feels exhausting, largely because Besson can’t resist taking needless detours that stall rather than propel the narrative, just so he can justify unleashing yet another of his lurid creations onto the screen.
As for the ersatz romance between Valerian and Laureline, it’s a stilted, overwhelmingly saccharine relationship that feels like it’s been ripped straight from the dog-eared pages of a Mills & Boon novel, including the creakingly cliched dialogue. It’s no wonder DeHaan and Delevingne struggle to muster enough chemistry to convince of their attraction. DeHaan is particularly out of his depth, woefully miscast as the swaggeringly suave action hero – a role so far removed from the pallid, peculiar misfits he usually excels at playing. Laureline, meanwhile, has been stripped of all her wit and intellect, leaving Delevingne with little more to do than scowl and make sarcastic comebacks while arching one of her impressive brows at Valerian’s cocksure antics.
There’s plenty of giddy delights to be enjoyed within Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities. The only trouble is: as soon as the novelty of roaming around Besson’s phantasmagorical theme park has worn off, you desperately discover that there’s hardly anything of worth inside the enticingly psychedelic packaging.
Writer/Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna