Luc Besson loves Valérian and Laureline. That much is obvious. He grew up on the comics, collaborated with co-creator Jean-Claude Mézières, and drew upon the series while making 1997’s The Fifth Element. In the final moments of his long-gestating film adaptation, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he dedicates the film to his father. And in the two hours and 15 minutes that precede that dedication, we’re witness to some of the most striking, sumptuous visuals ever put to film.
Valerian is beautiful. From an opening that mines every imaginable color from the heavenly beaches of Mul to a climactic showdown within the shadowy intergalactic hub of Alpha, the film is relentless in its creation of intricately detailed fantasy worlds. Countless alien breeds — some tentacled and squishy, others hulking and googly-eyed — live alongside humans and droids, all of whom wander through frames filled with futuristic curios, distant horizons, or cramped storefronts. Every planet has a personality; a desert vista is so spectacular in its picturesque grandeur that it’s easy to miss the puffs of bright blue and orange clouds floating overhead. The ever-growing space station Alpha encompasses everything from an underwater habitat to its own version of Times Square.
Alpha’s creation serves as the film’s prologue, with David Bowie’s “Major Tom” underscoring both the station’s technological advancements and mankind’s cohabitation with myriad alien races from the 1970s to the 2500s (or thereabouts). Here, through a long, delightful montage overflowing with careful evolutionary detail and alien meet-and-greets, Besson makes his intentions clear: The real storytelling is in what you see, not what you hear. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise fans of Besson, who, as a participant in what critics have dubbed the Cinéma du look movement, has long favored spectacle over story.
(Read: Revisiting the Retro-Futurist Dreams and Nightmares of The Fifth Element)
The story here centers around Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a pair of spatio-temporal agents nursing feelings for each other. When a mission ends with the retrieval of a tiny, mewling space creature, the duo unwittingly enters into an alien race’s bid for survival, one that’s intertwined with intergalactic heavies, shape-shifting dancers, and corrupt government officials. And here’s where things get sticky.
It’s not that Valerian’s story is flawed, necessarily. In fact, even with its labyrinthe setting and seemingly endless supply of alien races, it remains easier to follow than your average Marvel movie. Really, the problem comes down to character. Valerian and Laureline are confident and adept heroes, but as actual human beings, they fall flat.
Valerian is meant to be arrogant and roguish, a la Han Solo, but DeHaan’s turn resonates more as lecherous. When he and Laureline aren’t in battle, their conversations more or less center around Valerian begging for her love and her saying he’s not ready for commitment, an argument that arises in their first scene and repeats on a loop until the closing moments. It’s a boilerplate dynamic that doesn’t serve to develop either character; it doesn’t help that DeHaan and Delevingne have absolutely zero romantic chemistry.
They do, however, work well as partners. The pair are at their best during the film’s numerous action set pieces; though nontraditional in terms of appearance — DeHaan is no Chris Evans — both are confident and convincing when wielding a knife or a laser blaster. Delevingne, especially, seems to have found her calling as an actress. While she’s struggled to make an impression in drama (Paper Towns) or as a baddie (Suicide Squad), Delevingne’s razor-sharp turn makes good use of her stony disposition and terse delivery. Most of the film’s laughs, believe it or not, come from her. That she still hasn’t discovered a way to leverage her natural charisma into believable emotions is unfortunate, but not a lost cause. She’ll get there.
The supporting cast is equally unbalanced. The film’s myriad government officials are all blank slates—especially Kris Wu’s Sergeant Neza, who sounds like he’s reading cue cards at gunpoint—and Ethan Hawke’s jovial, dastardly Jolly doesn’t quite suit the actor’s strengths. And then there’s Rihanna, whose role could be excised with ease. While she’s as responsible for the sultry, infectious delights of the film’s central dance number as Besson, her acting is as bad as her arc, which I’m sure we’ll soon learn suffered from any number of deleted scenes.
But Valerian’s power doesn’t come from its cast or its story, and Besson probably didn’t intend for it to. The film’s power is in the construction of its world, which is as vivid as any I’ve seen on film. World building can sometimes serve as a distraction, but here it’s what justifies the bloated runtime. It’s thrilling to see how the Pearls of Mul wash their face, or what tourism looks like on Alpha, or how currency is valued, or how glowing butterflies are used by evil aliens as bait.
In building worlds as detailed and vivid as he’s done here, Besson has essentially allowed the setting to do what’s typically reserved for characters and stakes, and that’s to make us care. So beautiful is this world that to watch any corner of it get crushed by a falling spaceship or an errant missile is to evoke an emotional response.
Do what you will to the characters, I thought as I watched. Just don’t hurt this world.