A bril­liant galaxy with no signs of life

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

It is the height of irony that va­le­rian, the flow­er­ing plant that lends its name to the hero of Luc Bes­son’s sci-fi ex­trav­a­ganza “Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand Plan­ets,” is sold in health-food stores as a sleep aid. An­chored by a drowsy, half-lid­ded per­for­mance by Dane DeHaan, who ren­ders the mono­tone ti­tle char­ac­ter as if he were a pa­tient shuf­fling through his own pri­vate hos­pi­tal with an I.V. drip of Vi­codin trail­ing be­hind him — and not the dash­ing space-cop he’s sup­posed to be — “Va­le­rian” is an ex­pen­sive, hand­some but dozy in­valid of a movie. It’s say­ing some­thing that DeHaan, who at least had a fever­ish in­ten­sity as the un­will­ing pa­tien­thero of “A Cure for Well­ness,” is so awk­wardly mis­cast here that he makes his co-star Cara Delev­ingne, the light­weight fash­ion-mod­el­turned-ac­tress who plays Va­le­rian’s po­lice part­ner and love in­ter­est, Lau­re­line, look like Meryl Streep.

The two have, un­for­tu­nately, zero chem­istry.

To be fair, how hard must it be to act, for al­most an en­tire movie, against noth­ing but a green screen? Adapted by Bes­son (“The Fifth El­e­ment”) from French comic books by Jean-Claude Méz­ières and Pierre Christin, “Va­le­rian” is live ac­tion in name only. It fea­tures more CGI crit­ters, sets and spe­cial ef­fects than al­most any other pre­vi­ous scifi film, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of “Avatar.” Much of it hap­pens to be very beau­ti­ful. But the story, which seems to have been bumped from first to last on Bes­son’s to-do list, is te­dious, cocka­mamie and me­an­der­ing.

Set some 400 years in the fu­ture on a space sta­tion hous­ing al­most 30 mil­lion res­i­dents from across the uni­verse, “Va­le­rian” con­cerns the ef­forts of law en­force­ment of­fi­cers Va­le­rian and Lau­re­line to res­cue their com­man­der (Clive Owen), who has been taken pris­oner by a band of iri­des­cent bald alien sur­vivors from the dead planet Mul. Known as the Pearls, they are seek­ing the re­turn of the last sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple of an ar­madillo-es­que species known as the “con­verter” for its abil­ity to eat some­thing and then ex­crete hun­dreds of copies of it.

That’s it. Pretty sim­ple, ac­tu­ally, when you think about it — not that any­one is ask­ing you to. Es­pe­cially not the movie, which wan­ders off on so many ex­tra­ne­ous tan­gents that watch­ing it feels like talk­ing to SNL’s Girl You Wished You Hadn’t Started a Con­ver­sa­tion With at a Party. The most fla­grant ex­am­ple of the movie’s at­ten­tion deficit is a scene set in the space sta­tion’s red­light dis­trict, where Va­le­rian en­coun­ters a pimp, played by a cow­boy-hat­ted, scenery-chew­ing Ethan Hawke and an ex­trater­res­trial pros­ti­tute called Bub­ble (singer Ri­hanna), whose shape-shift­ing ser­vices Va­le­rian is seek­ing to make

use of as a dis­guise. Ri­hanna’s pro­tracted, soft-core-sexy dance num­ber goes on far longer than is re­quired by the nar­ra­tive.

Such sug­ges­tive ma­te­rial not­with­stand­ing, “Va­le­rian” feels very much like a chil­dren’s movie. It’s telling that a mil­i­tary trans­port ve­hi­cle in one early scene is fash­ioned from a yel­low school bus that has been retro­fit­ted with gym-locker doors. What’s more, the movie’s two he­roes are only ever re­ferred to by their first names, lend­ing the rare in­stances in which they’re ad­dressed by for­mal mil­i­tary rank — Ma­jor Va­le­rian and Sergeant Lau­re­line — the ab­surd ring of co-host names on a Satur­day morn­ing TV show from the 1960s.

There is more candy here, of the reti­nal va­ri­ety, than a jumbo bag of Air­heads. The film opens with a funny and quasi-in­spir­ing pro­logue mon­tage, set to David Bowie’s “Space Od­dity,” in which footage of the 1975 meet­ing of U.S. as­tro­nauts and Soviet cos­mo­nauts in Earth or­bit morphs into a se­ries of grip-and­grins fea­tur­ing hu­man ex­plor­ers greet­ing a va­ri­ety of ex­otic-look­ing aliens. But much of the vi­su­als that fol­low oc­cupy that un­com­fort­able gap be­tween the cool and the try­ing-too-hard.

All this, of course, is a well-mean­ing at­tempt by Bes­son to re­main true to the eclec­tic es­thetic of the source ma­te­rial, which stirs to­gether PG-13 sen­su­al­ity, retro-fu­tur­is­tic fan­tasy and self-aware, wise­crack­ing di­a­logue. And that may be enough for some. But for any­one look­ing for more than a two-hour­plus sugar coma Va­le­rian’s assess­ment of Bub­ble’s ex­otic dance rou­tine will prob­a­bly ring true:

“Look, that’s re­ally cool,” he says, apolo­get­i­cally, “but it’s not re­ally what I’m look­ing for right now.”


Dane DeHaan and Cara Delev­ingne have "zero chem­istry" in the sci-fi ex­trav­a­ganza "Va­le­rian and the City of a Thou­sand Plan­ets," says Michael O’Sul­li­van.

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