A €200 million price tag. Avatar-rivalling visual ambition. Source material oft-regarded as an influence on Star Wars. Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives with interstellar expectations. While it’s no Jupiter Ascending-style stinker, a dispiritingly conventional screenplay and miscast leads prevent this take on French comic-book series Valérian and Laureline from ever truly taking off.
Not that there isn’t innovation. An early sequence in an inter-dimensional Grand Bazaar is brain-breakingly inventive. Before that a 10-minute, near-silent vignette on a pristine Day-Glo beach planet stuns with its simplicity. And then there’s the opener – a bravura history of humanity’s first contact, from present day to the 28th Century. Taken in isolation, Valerian’s first 30 minutes are up there with the best sci-fi in recent memory. The trouble starts when the story kicks in.
Enter Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), space agents who police the universe by day and flirt awkwardly by night. Their latest mission takes them to Alpha – a planet-sized city home to 8,000 alien species. But the megalopolis has a literal heart of darkness, where some seemingly belligerent force threatens the fabric of the galaxy itself.
Every penny of that record-breaking (and independently financed) budget has been put on screen. If The Fifth Element’s taxi skyways knocked your orange suspenders off in 1997, Valerian frequently makes Milla Jovovich’s swan dive look like a pre-production animatic. Besson hurtles his camera through a series of awe-inspiring environments, and populates them with increasingly bizarre alien species.
It’s like A New Hope’s cantina sequence stretched over two hours, with Rihanna making the biggest impression as Bubble – a meek, shapeshifting stripper – alongside a game Ethan Hawke as her pimp, (not so) Jolly. While the world often acts as little more than a backdrop, screen sci-fi doesn’t get much more optically arresting.
And yet, Besson’s rocketship is knocked off-course. Penned by the Euro auteur himself, the ploddingly predictable story, adapted from 1975 volume ‘Ambassador of the Shadows’, falls well short of the significant achievements elsewhere.
The dialogue, meanwhile, feels clunky even when spoken in indecipherable alien tongues. And the leads also disappoint. DeHaan lacks the cocksure swagger of the Han Solo archetype he’s playing up to, while Delevingne is asked to do little more than be chased or deploy an endless series of exasperated reaction shots.
Besson’s world is undoubtedly ripe for further exploration. But he’d be wise to hone his storytelling, and possibly recast.