Gonzo Planet: "Valerian" makes your eyes pop but can't make you care enough

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
137 min., rated PG-13.

Like Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s undeniably goofy but universally panned 2015 space opera “Jupiter Ascending” before it, Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” will likely become a cult classic when more audiences are willing to accept it in, oh, maybe the year 2030. Right now, though, this independently financed, $180-million-budgeted sci-fi fantasy adventure is a hot mess of gobbledygook that’s gorgeous to look at and sometimes fun to watch but empty where its heart should be. Adapted from a pre-existing property—“Valérian and Laureline,” the long-running 1967 series of French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières—that was said to have influenced “Star Wars,” it’s clearly an ambitious passion project for writer-director Besson to swing for the fences and invite audiences to be tourists through each computerized environment in his new, exciting world with extravagant, innovative razzle-dazzle. A shame, then, that lead characters Valerian and Laureline are one-note duds, especially the first half of the couple, and the storytelling occasionally takes a dense, convoluted, expository page out of “John Carter.” It quite frequently dazzles and makes your eyes pop, but it won’t make you care enough.

In 2740, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are intergalactic government agents at a space station in Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. They’re partners, and they happen to be dating and talking about their future. Having their blissful vacation interrupted, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with their next mission to retrieve and protect a “converter,” the last-living species of the planet Mül that replicates anything it is fed. When they return with the hot commodity in hand, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) then alerts them that Alpha has become threatened by contamination, only for Valerian and Laureline to each be separated and rescue one another. Can these partners finally figure out who’s behind the genocidal war that dwindled the pearl-harveting civilization of Mül, and will Laureline stop resisting Valerian’s proposal?

Loaded with an unrestricted vision that borrows from “Total Recall,” “Blade Runner,” anything by Terry Gilliam, and even Luc Besson’s very own “The Fifth Element,” “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is so visually imaginative and gloriously bananas in ways that all summer blockbusters should strive to be. One can just see all 152+ million Euros up there on the screen. The film’s opening-credits prologue might be its best and, then, its most breathtaking and immersive. First, a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” tracks the evolution of space exploration with humans from Alpha shaking hands with different alien species. Shooting 400 years later, the film grants time to admire and drink in the sprawling splendor of the harmonious Mül, a dreamy, idyllic beach planet, and its lanky, hairless, androgynous race of inhabitants before a genocidal war nearly wipes all of them out. From there, the viewer is dropped into the middle of Valerian and Laureline enjoying a simulated beach setting and then instantly bantering like a couple arguing over who gets to be on top. They have a cheeky push-pull, but the majority of their one-liners are cornball clunkers and never especially funny. Both Valerian and Laureline have driver personalities, but he wants to marry her and she doesn’t think he’s ready to commit; their flirtatious sparring over a marriage proposal almost seems like an eye-rolling joke because we never get to know them.

Everything that doesn’t concern the actual plot is a thrilling technical achievement. When it comes to Valerian and Laureline’s mission, the stakes are never clear or palpable enough, and when it comes to their relationship, the intended drama and emotion just aren’t there. Luckily, there’s more than enough to delight the eyeballs to almost forgive the inadequacies of the script and its less-than-dynamic duo, but it’s ironic that the weak link of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” happens to be Valerian himself and his self-inflicted drama. Beyond a quick line about the loss of his mother that is addressed by a supporting character and then immediately dropped like a hot brick, nothing is learned about him. If this is the introduction of a franchise, or even if a sequel doesn’t ever see the light of day, shouldn’t the viewer know how Valerian became a federal agent in order to connect with him on his mission? Secondly, Dane DeHaan, one of the more magnetic and talented actors of his generation, is wildly miscast as Valerian. Smoldering and arrogant, we can believe, but DeHaan does not scream “ladykiller” with a rolodex of conquests, even though the script keeps insisting on it. He underplays so much that his delivery of would-be jokes feels more stilted than fun, and Valerian’s supposed arc comes out of nowhere. The capable yet headstrong Laureline isn’t written much better, but Cara Delevingne actually fares better than her fellow co-star and sells the playful repartee with the right amount of likability, confidence and feisty attitude. When the characters don’t have to keep talking about their relationship, one can more easily accept them as work partners who take turns saving each other.

For all of its flaws, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is too giddily overcrammed to ever be dull and will surely in no time find its passionate fans who see too-muchness as a big selling point. Writer-director Luc Besson still offers up so many dizzyingly weird and kaleidoscopic sights that it’s hard to dismiss the film too much. The aforementioned “converter” is an adorable armadillo-like creature that defecates pearls because, well, it can. Forced by a chatty trio of the platypus-like Doghan Daguis, Laureline sticks her head up the arse of a magical jellyfish to have her memory read. The desert Planet Kyrian transforms into a bazaar with the use of a virtual-reality helmet. Rihanna is her own special effect and delivers “wow” moments as shape-shifting “glamapod” named Bubble who spends her days doing cabaret acts in a red-light district and then finally finds a life-saving purpose for them when she helps Valerian, while Ethan Hawke gets to sport eye-liner and a nose ring chain as Bubble’s carnival-barking pimp. If Valerian and Laureline live to see another day and a sequel, they should either just let their eye-candy surroundings do the talking or actually have something more clever and interesting to say.

Grade: B -