“Valerian”: A brilliant galaxy with no signs of life
★¼55 Drama. Rated PG-13. 137 minutes.
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 patient-hero of “A Cure for Wellness,” is so awkwardly miscast here that he makes his co-star Cara Delevingne, the lightweight fashion-model-turned-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 sci-fi 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 very long todo 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 adorably armadilloesque 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 red-light 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-coresexy 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 gymlocker 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-and-grins featuring human explorers greeting a variety of exotic-looking aliens — some of whom don’t have hands to shake. But much of the visuals that follow occupy that uncomfortable gap between the cool and the trying-too-hard, with appearances by high-tech visors that look more like BluBlocker sunglasses, and an incongruous mix of uniform styles that range from armor-plating to Gestapo-esque evocations of “Flash Gordon” surplus.