Writer/director Luc Besson offers another fantastical vision of a colorful and expansive universe in the form of space opera with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an adaptation of a French graphic novel by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, but that universe is only the vessel of a familiar plot that concerns the search for a MacGuffin and a lot of business involving bureaucratic corruption. It's enough to make one wish the plot would shut up to allow the peculiarities this world to breathe. As soon as it shows us some fantastical sight, it seems in a rush to get to the next one.
That's a shame, because the film's hefty budget has been put to impressive use: There is not a shot in the film in which something fantastical is not somewhere onscreen. It would verge upon being too much, except all those fantastical things are undeniably compelling. The planet on which the film opens depicts a species of alien known as the Pearls. The planet is one sparse with any actual structures beyond the curious pods that house its inhabitants. The Pearls themselves are nearly indistinguishable from each other, humanoid and translucent, clothed in spare rags.
Later, we see aliens that are less humanoid, such as ones that are mixes between dogs and platypuses and finish each other's sentences in a creepily servile way or a gelatinous blob known as a Glamopod that can disguise itself as any other living species (It is introduced by taking the form of an exotic performer, played by Rihanna, whose boss, a pimp known as Jolly and played by Ethan Hawke, keeps her in indentured servitude, an image that is as uncomfortable as it sounds). An extended action sequence pits our hero and heroine against an alien gangster (voiced by John Goodman) whose existence is, somehow, within a dimensional reality that may or may not be virtual, which is certainly an original concept.
Our hero and heroine are Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), Federal agents with the human foundation of a global alliance of species and races. The first sign of trouble within Besson's screenplay, particularly in how it deals with its primary human figures, is in how these characters operate with each other. Valerian wants to marry Laureline so much that it's essentially all he talks about. Laureline, whose physicality Besson's camera keeps in full view by way of carefully preserved angles, isnít so sure. Valerian proves, through his careless attitude toward her, that he isnít exactly a sympathetic character.
The pair is drawn into a plot involving a converter (which is a small animal that can reproduce whatever it ingests as plentiful waste, a feature that factors as a surprisingly important plot point), a pearl (lower-case this time, referring to the life force of the Pearls, as in the alien species), and a conspiracy to cover up a massacre deep within the human government. It's less interesting than it sounds, spinning its wheels for most of its middle section, and ultimately, Besson's focus is placed upon that unfortunate thread. It constantly interrupts the world-building in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which means the film exists between being imaginative and remaining inert.
Dane DeHaan (Major Valerian), Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline), Clive Owen (Commander Filitt), Sam Spruell (General Okto-Bar), Rihanna (Bubble), Ethan Hawke (Jolly the Pimp), Kris Wu (Sergeant Neza), Sasha Luss (Princess Lihio-Mina/Candy-Dress), Aymeline Valade (Emperor Haban-Limai), Pauline Hoarau (Empress Aloi/Swing Angel), Alain Chabat (Bob the Pirate), Herbie Hancock (Defense Minister), Rutger Hauer (President of the World State Federation). Featuring the voices of Elizabeth Debicki (Emperor Haban-Limai) and John Goodman (Igon Siruss).
Directed and written by Luc Besson, based on the comic book series Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres.
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence/action, suggestive material, brief language).
Released on July 21, 2017.