The great thing about comics is that you’re in control. You can soak in a page of beautifully rendered art for as long as you want, only moving on when you decide to. The new movie “ “, based on an iconic comic, left me yearning to linger over the visuals and ignore the story.
“Valerian” is written and directed by auteur Luc Besson. Besson is a supreme visual stylist, and made the glorious cult sci-fi epic “” with mostly practical effects in 1997. Now, he now has a full range of digital effects tool at his disposal and, as you might expect, “Valerian” is eye-poppingly gorgeous.
As each jaw-droppingly expansive sci-fi vista, teeming with exotic alien life and gleaming with extravagantly rich detail, unfolded before my eyes, all I wanted was to pause and soak in the incredible imagery. It’s beautiful. “Valerian” absolutely deserves to be seen on the biggest screen in your constellation.
Unfortunately, you’re not in charge of turning the page. The, like many comics, was the product of a collaboration between a writer, Pierre Christin, unfurling the story, and an artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, conjuring the pictures. The artist side of Besson absolutely nails it with the superlative spectacle. But the writer side of Besson undermines the movie with a bunch of poor decisions.
It all starts promisingly: the opening sequence tells the entire history of humanity as a space-faring race in a sequence reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s millennia-long match-cut in “2001: A Space Odyssey“. That’s followed by a lavish prologue on an iridescent tropical alien planet.
Then the action kicks into gear with a riotously imaginative chase and shootout spanning two dimensions. This first act is rammed with enthralling, colourful, bonkers ideas: a gun that shoots people in another dimension! Cute alien pets that poop diamonds! A city home to 3,000 different species, each more bizarre and intriguing and than the last! Taken together, the first third of the film is as exhilarating as you could hope for.
But then the page turns and the story continues, whether you want it to or not. Space agents Valerian and Laureline return to their home base, the sprawling space station Alpha, to find that a mysterious cancer is eating at its heart. Gruff space-boss Clive Owen instructs them to be his bodyguards while he has a big meeting, until some unexpected intruders turn up. Valerian and Laureline pursue them to the heart of the teeming space-city and along the way uncover a terrible conspiracy.
Or something. I don’t really know or care, and I’m not entirely convinced Besson does either. The plot is as nebulous as spacedust, and simply provides endless opportunities for Valerian and Laureline to get into wacky scrapes with a succession of grotesque creatures.
Which I’m all for, by the way. Unfortunately, several unforced errors sap the anarchic, punk energy that powers the first act and gave “The Fifth Element” its cult appeal. The adventure takes place on Valerian and Laureline’s home base, which feels static and safe when the vast mysteries of space lie tantalisingly beyond the edges of the screen. The villain is revealed right from the start, draining any suspense. And our heroes are trying to rescue someone we really don’t care about, leaching the drama from their quest.
But most of all, I’d rather spend time gazing at the beautiful visuals than hanging out with Valerian himself. Played by Dane DeHaan, this cocky loudmouth wears out his welcome pretty quickly, especially during endless scenes of achingly cringe-worthy banter with Laureline.
Cara Delevingne is a delight as Laureline, a tough and sarcastic hero more than capable of carrying the movie alone. Alongside her, DeHaan isn’t bad so much as misplaced — there was definitely an opportunity for the baby-faced actor to make a Keanu-style metamorphosis into an action star, like when milquetoasts James McAvoy, Daniel Craig and Dan Stevens whipped their shirts off and took everybody’s loins by surprise in unexpected action roles (“Wanted”, “Casino Royale” and “The Guest”, respectively). But when DeHaan takes his shirt off on a holodeck beach, it looks more likely that Delevingne could kick sand in his face.
Guest stars including Ethan Hawke as a sort of cybergoth pimp and Alain Chabat as a steampunk pirate ham it up gamely, but none of the supporting roles are as memorable (for better or worse) as Chris Tucker‘s Ruby Rhod in “The Fifth Element”. And instead of a blue alien opera singer hitting impossible high notes, we get Rihanna pole-dancing in a schoolgirl’s outfit.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” isn’t bad, but nor is it much fun. A dazzling opening third rockets off the comic page, but a misfiring story brings it crashing back down to earth.
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