A brilliant galaxy with no signs of life
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.