Weirdness will only get you so far. For me, that's the main takeaway from this lavish sci-fi passion project from writer-director Luc Besson, who brought the world La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element and, more recently, the bracingly out-there Lucy. Based on the long-running, well-regarded French comic series Valérian and Laureline, this Valerian may remind American viewers of a mashup of Jupiter Ascending and Avatar.
Would that that were a better thing. With unsympathetic leads, a clunky script and timeworn themes, Valerian stands and falls on the strength of its visual elements and action set-pieces — which are, yes, pretty weird, and occasionally downright marvelous.
The film opens with a clever montage chronicling humanity's early forays into space diplomacy, which also serves as backstory for the titular "city of a thousand planets." (Essentially, it's just a gigantic space station where tons of species coexist, divided into distinct ecosystems in Zootopia fashion.) Next, the narrative rockets into the 28th century, where we witness the apparent extinction of a race of peaceful supermodel aliens all too reminiscent of the aforementioned James Cameron blockbuster. Their prized possession is a "converter," a kittenish mini-dragon critter that can gobble up one space-pearl and crap out a hundred more.
Ridiculous? Very. Trippy? Deliciously. But then the plot proper kicks in. We meet our protagonists, federal agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who have been tasked with retrieving the converter. Their personalities are male and female stereotypes of another era; their flirty bickering sounds like it was scripted by an artificial intelligence based on a template of bad '80s movies.
Two seasoned and charismatic actors might be able to pull off these retro roles and even make them fun. But DeHaan, who has a heavy-lidded Benicio Del Toro quality, is utterly miscast as a space cowboy, while Delevingne brings sullen attitude and not much else. When Rihanna pops in as a shape-shifting alien hooker-slash-actress, her acting may be a little tentative, but her husky, self-deprecating delivery gives the film a much-needed dose of humor and humanity. And she gets to recite a Paul Verlaine poem in a summer movie with a reported $180 million budget.
Yes, Besson and crew definitely deserve some credit for gumming up the gears of the blockbuster machine. If you're the sort of person who can enjoy a film as a series of disconnected episodes of creative oddness, ignoring its central narrative, you're more likely to like Valerian. The detours and asides in this long movie are far more fun than the "important" parts.
It's easy, for instance, to enjoy a long chase sequence in which Valerian's hand and the rest of his body are stuck in two different dimensions. Or a digression in which Laureline is captured by giant, cat-eyed, man-eating frog aliens. (Naturally, she's forced to don a pretty dress, à la Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
Just don't ask why the characters are engaged in all this absurdity in the first place. Why did they decide to become space cops? What is their bosses' agenda? Only rarely do motives crystallize, and by then it's often too late to make us care.
In an age of preprogrammed, focus-grouped entertainment, there's always something to be said for weirdness. But Valerian is weird in ways that, if you've seen Besson's previous films, may not feel that weird anymore. It makes excellent use of the song "Space Oddity," but it's been a while since a movie could get a pass on oddness alone.