In a sci-fi/fantasy market saturated with well-trodden IP, do original or starkly unfamiliar stories have a chance? That’s the question facing Luc Besson’s new 3-D adventure tale, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which cost $180 million to make and openly delights in throwing every cent of that budget onscreen. We’re already prone to reciting the long list of originals gone wrong — famous flops the likes of John Carter and Jupiter Ascending — risks whose failure to pay off seem to justify studios’ recent hesitancy to support inventive stories and auteurist high-wire acts. Why bother with a Valerian, a studio might ask, when you can keep expanding or rebooting any number of already-bloated universes?
It’s an ironic question, it turns out, as Valerian, for its many merits, is only so original. The movie is officially adapted from the French sci-fi comic series Valérian and Laureline, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, which ran from 1967 to 2010. But an American viewer unfamiliar with the source material might justifiably think the movie was pieced together from the best bits of other beloved sci-fi movies. There’s the affectionate CGI tour of a peace-loving planet of blue people, for example, that’s seemingly straight out of Avatar, down to the coded messages about human greed and needless destruction. There’s the colorfully idiosyncratic style and behavior of everyone in the cast — human and not, organic and digital — that feels like a throwback to the best of sci-fi interplanetary weirdos, including those from films in Besson’s own canon, such as The Fifth Element. There are sky-high police chases through nü-urban cityscapes, meanwhile, that could be from anywhere: Star Wars, Minority Report, take your pick.
Usually Besson, who’s never shied away from wearing his influences on his sleeve, winds up somewhere on the side of the extraordinarily outrageous — and original. And fun. This time around, however, what he’s offering up is a bit of a dull ride, a movie that feels like an audition for the right to make the kind of movie Besson has already been shocking us with for years. At its worst moments — and also, too frequently, at some of its best — Valerian feels like Besson trying to make a case for himself to be handed the keys to the lesser, less original tentpoles his career has long defied. By the end of Valerian, I was convinced Besson should have a crack at a Star Wars movie. For any number of other directors, that would be a good thing. For Besson, whose best movies (Lucy, The Fifth Element) are inimitable to the point of neither chasing trends nor inciting them, it’s a little disappointing. Valerian was cobbled together without the help of studios, yet aesthetically, and imaginatively, Besson seems more beholden to Hollywood than ever before.
Valerian follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his copilot, colleague, and potential lover Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to Alpha, the titular "City of a Thousand Planets," that involves the shady commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), the aforementioned blue people, and a rare energy source, pearls, that might help jump-start the rebuilding of their lost civilization. Honestly, there’s a ton of plot, but the ins and outs of it matter so much less than the worlds it gives Besson’s camera an excuse to explore. Alpha, for example, was once a space station that, through years of diplomatic good will, grew to be the home of tens of thousands of species (including 9 million humans and a burlesque shapeshifter named Bubble, played by Rihanna) from a thousand different home planets — hence the name. We’re 700 years into the future and 100 million miles from Earth: This is a microcosm of galactic civilization. Besson, as expected, revels in all of the creatures and factoids this affords, creating a world that’s as enthralling to look at as it is invigorating to think about. This is a world community; Besson does his best to explore it.
But there’s that pesky plot to think about. Valerian isn’t confusing, but it’s complex. As somewhat of a mystery, it’s full of avatars, false fronts, and carbon copies: Ungenerously, you might say it’s practically a meta-reflection on itself as a persuasive imitation of other films. Were it deliberate, that’d be funny — but even without that self-sneering joke, Valerian is, to its credit and at the very least, joyously good-humored. What has long separated Besson from other directors of his ilk is both his innate sense of humor and whimsy and his deep affection for his subjects. In probably the movie’s most creative scene, Besson builds a virtual-reality marketplace on another planet. Humans need special goggles to be able to see the dimension in which the marketplace exists and to interact with it; otherwise, they’d just be walking through desert. It’s clever: more video game, really, than movie. Characters come off like they’re hologram avatars wading through a modern slum. Except they aren’t holograms: That other dimension is real, and it’s dangerous.
This is the kind of stuff Besson is good for — less so for the dry, pointless romance he tries to cook between his two leads, DeHaan and Delevingne, whose joyless flirtation is, honestly, a little embarrassing. He’s a shady commitment-phobe; she wants more. But she’s also more than a little of out of his league — so who cares? It’s literally a city of a thousand planets; neither could possibly be lacking for proper dating options. I’d been rooting for Delevigne to recover from her unfortunate turn last year as a witch-villainess in Suicide Squad, and Valerian is absolutely a step up. But she’s out of place here: Her line readings are an intriguingly harsh antidote to Besson’s candy-coated world, which made me tire of his world while also making me want to follow her into her own smarter, sexier movie.
Besson has always had a thing for strong heroines (Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, Milla Jovovich in Fifth Element), and while Delevingne isn’t the focus here, it’s easy to dream that she could have been. The movie offers us a world full of spectral, digital curiosities; who cares whether the dweeb gets the girl? Well, Besson does — making Valerian a little boring, at the end of the day, though not unenjoyable. It’s too much of a feast for the senses to be a bad movie, but it has too little A-game Besson to be a good one.