Like people, genres tend to grow respectable as they age. Once the stuff of drugstore paperbacks and B-movies, science fiction has become the stuff of battleship-sized blockbusters and brow-furrowing indies, with precious little occupying the middle ground. With a reported budget of $180 million, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is decidedly of the battleship variety, but this Luc Besson movie, about a cocksure 25th-century government agent (Dane DeHaan) and his sharp-tongued partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) following the trail of an intergalactic conspiracy, resolutely refuses the leaden seriousness that tends to be woven into most modern sci-fi. It’s a movie in which the fates of both an entire world and the human race hang in the balance, but it’s also one in which the path to enlightenment runs through a jellyfish’s asshole.
Besson opens the movie with a promise that, if nothing else, this one’s gonna be big. Timed to the entry of the electric guitar in “Space Oddity,” footage of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission expands to fill the screen, and as we leap forward in time, that gesture of U.S.-Soviet amity takes on global and then intergalactic dimension. Chinese astronauts stride through an airlock to shake hands with Russians; Sikhs follow in their footsteps, and then alien races, each offering a vaguely limblike appendage in a gesture of universal friendship. The traffic jam of incoming spaceships proves more than Earth’s orbit can handle, so the space station named Alpha pushes off into the interstellar currents, a floating hub that eventually becomes the sentient universe’s moving center.
Like much of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha is a dazzling creation, a floating city that looks like a giant sea urchin encrusted with barnacles. Unfortunately, the center of Besson’s particular tale is not Alpha itself but DeHaan’s Valerian, a brash, headstrong operative whose intended self-confidence more often reads like smugness. He’s a ladykiller with a “playlist” of past conquests that stretches for miles, but he’s lately set his sights on his longtime partner, and he decides that the few minutes they have on a holographic beach before their next mission would be the perfect time to propose marriage. It’s a profoundly miscalculated way for Besson to introduce his main character, both because it calls up questions the movie has no interest in answering—it’s 400 years in the future and they still have marriage? And playlists?—and because DeHaan doesn’t have anything like the on-screen charisma necessary to pull off the moment without immediately turning us against him.
Nonetheless, it’s Valerian whom the people of the dying planet Mül choose as the recipient of what seems to be their final transmission, a blast of bluish light that takes 30 years to reach its target. Mül’s doomed inhabitants, the Pearls, seem simple to the point of idiocy, like a pastel version of Avatar’s Na’vi, and they’re helpless when their planet’s soft-hued sky begins to rain hunks of flaming spacecraft, but they’re a vision of total harmony, a real-life version of the beachside idyll Valerian and Laureline can only pretend to enjoy. When Valerian thwarts an attempt by some of the surviving Pearls to buy the last remaining Mül Converter—a creature that eats their former planet’s natural products and excretes a shower of slick, shiny spheres—he’s just doing his job, being a loyal instrument of the government whose objectives he never seems to question. But that assignment, which forces a long chase through an extradimensional bazaar whose stacks of ramshackle buildings flit in and out of view as he switches between planes of existence, pulls him into the struggle for their species’ survival, whether he understands it or not.
Valerian is inspired by a French comic-book series that goes back to the late 1960s, and Besson has said he first had the idea to turn it into a film when he was making The Fifth Element, but he had to wait for the technology to catch up. It’s strange, then, that though technology has reached the point where the movie can feature alien beings of every texture and skeletal construction, we’re still stuck for the most part in the company of several rather unprepossessing humans. That includes an evil military commander, played by Clive Owen, and a good(ish) one, played by Sam Spruell, and a few others who are so generic they barely even register. The movie keeps giving us glimpses of fascinating alien civilizations, but they’re only fleeting, like concept sketches that never got off the drawing board. At one point, Valerian is sent on what amounts to a fetch quest, and the quickest path to his objective involves barreling straight through the walls that separate Alpha’s primary sectors. Every time he smashes through one, you wish the movie could take a minute to stop and look around.
Besson’s trying to cram in as much as he possibly can, but the more he overstuffs the movie, the emptier it feels.
The movie’s most memorable interlude occurs when Valerian has to take a detour into Alpha’s pleasure district and enlist the help of a shape-shifting “glampod” named Bubble, who’s so seductive she’s worth braving the twitchy pimp (Ethan Hawke) who guards her door. She puts on her standard show for Valerian first, pole-dancing on a bare stage as she shifts from latex-clad nurse to playful French maid, but all along, she keeps the form of Rihanna, presumably because there’s no way to improve upon it. It’s a momentary role, and her presence as a compulsory sex worker–turned–obliging sidekick is not something Besson or Valerian is remotely equipped to unpack, but Rihanna brings a knowing weariness to the part that, for a few minutes, makes the movie’s world feels as if it’s actually been lived in, not just conjured up at the press of a button. Valerian comes close in a few other moments, mostly when Delevingne arches one of her famous eyebrows and springs into action, but she inevitably ends up dogging Valerian’s heels again, always his partner but never his equal.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a luxurious, appealingly daffy spectacle, a true vision unchecked by the standards of good taste, and that in and of itself is a quality worth savoring. But its design is pixel-deep, without the underlying thought that makes great science fiction worth revisiting. It’ll look amazing on a TV in a Best Buy some day.