At this point, Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets is most famous for its pre-production details. It is both the most expensive French film ever made, and the most expensive independent film ever made. It has more special effects shots than Rogue One. Director Luc Besson raised $80 million at Cannes with a script and a handful of sketches. These are all interesting details, and point to Besson’s passion for the project. But for all his chutzpah and refusal to work within the studio system, Valerian is an oddly inert film. Like The Fifth Element, Besson imagines a dense future that bursts with life and odd creatures. It is a fun world to play in, and yet it lacks the key components that elevate science-fiction above mere world-building.
The film is an adaptation of the long-running French Valérian and Laureline graphic novels. Besson’s film noticeably abandons the woman’s name from the title, in favor of something even clunkier. Still, the basics are the same: Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are government agents who specialize in complex, inter-dimensional espionage. The first mission is to steal a cute little alien that looks like a cross between a dragon and a Pomeranian. It is a valuable because the creature can produce facsimile copies of anything it eats, including precious jewels. Valerian and Laureline rendezvous on Alpha, the titular city that gets its name from the breadth of species that live there. They must protect the creature along with their Commander (Clive Owen), except both get stolen by mysterious, long-limbed aliens. Most of the film is a protracted rescue mission, one where the agents learn the true nature of the aliens and themselves.
The best parts of Valerian are the chase sequences. Besson makes full use of the 3D effects, with his heroes speeding through one improbable landscape after another. The camera placement and editing are cohesive, with an effect that’s sort of like a video game. It is hard to keep up with the film, and yet there is a pleasantly buoyant kinetic energy to it. Unfortunately, the color palette gets in the way of Besson’s vision. Long sequences unfold in the dark, with soupy imagery that is difficult to make out. This could have been the fault of a dim projection, and yet I found myself yearning for the sequences that are set in the daytime, instead of the gunmetal bulkheads that make up Alpha’s byzantine tunnels. The opening sequence is starkly beautiful, set on an improbable beach with a cloudless sky. By the time Valerian dispatches hordes of dimly-lit aliens, I could barely make out one figure from another.
Visual shortcomings notwithstanding, the bigger problem with Valerian is the casting. Space opera is a genre I always enjoy; to this day, I will defend Jupiter Ascending as an unfairly maligned, noble failure. The trouble is that Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are no Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. There is a sub-plot where Valerian shamelessly flirts with Laureline – he sexually harasses her before he proposes – and his behavior is all the more creepy since the two actors do not have any chemistry. DeHaan and Delevingne lack the chops to carry a film of this caliber. Besson should know better: in the past, he’s called upon heavies like Jean Reno, Bruce Willis, and Scarlett Johansson. This film strives for a tone that’s light, even cavalier, except DeHaan has the charisma of a pushy, sex-crazed adolescent. The stunt casting does not fare better: Rihanna appears as an alien that’s somewhere between an octopus and a chameleon, only be used and objectified before she can become interesting. By the time I recognized Herbie Hancock as a government functionary, I got the impression that Besson was contorting his film to the whims of his investors.
There are some imaginative ideas in Valerian, both in terms of inter-dimensional travel and how aliens might coexist in the future. Since the graphic novels have been around since the 1960s, the film runs into the admittedly unfair fallacy of bringing forth a new idea: something is not the best just because it is also first. During the mind-bending parts of Valerian, I found myself thinking of Rick and Morty, a cartoon with a much smaller budget and bigger ambition. No matter its shortcomings and familiar twists, Besson still probably had more control over his film that most mainstream filmmakers. That’s to his credit – every scene was lovingly assembled – and perhaps to his film’s detriment. Valerian will not start a franchise, nor will it send DeHaan/Delevingne toward stardom. In a summer filled with sequels and remakes, however, here is a unique speace opera, and that should count for something.