Writer-director Luc Besson encapsulates the soul of his latest movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, in its first three scenes. The film opens on a sweeping, centuries-long history of Alpha, a space station that’s grown from a near-present-day base into a chaotic floating city. Then the story jumps to an extensive sequence on a bright paradise planet of willowy, iridescent humanoids, about to suffer a cataclysmic fate. The forgettable title character only comes in after all this is over, and he’s introduced almost grudgingly. From the start, Besson’s priorities are clear: he loves this vast, complicated future world much more than he loves the man who’s supposed to be its hero.
Valerian is based on the long-running Franco-Belgian comic Valérian et Laureline, which chronicles the exploits of two time-traveling “spatio-temporal agents” and freelance adventurers. In Besson’s film, Major Valerian (played by The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Suicide Squad’s Cara Delevingne) are a pair of non-time-traveling special agents in the 28th century, protecting the interests of humanity and order. When they’re sent to retrieve a rare animal with remarkable powers, they start a chain of events that unravels a political cover-up, revealing old sins that threaten the future of Alpha.
But Valerian isn’t a movie about plot, characters, or action; it’s a movie about places. True to its comic book roots, the larger arc exists to draw viewers into the beautiful, far-flung corners of Alpha. This makes it strangely episodic for a film, but also refreshingly light on complicated lore. Series newcomers can piece together a substantial amount of backstory, but that doesn’t matter much — the chains of plot and causality extend just far enough to explain what Valerian and Laureline are doing in any given scene. When the ship’s computer starts explaining, say, the cause of a massive economic collapse on Alpha, Valerian impatiently cuts it off.
Parts of Valerian feel a lot like Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element: it shares both specific setpieces, like a vast vertical highway, and a more general colorful griminess. But there’s so much going on that you can’t pin down any single science fiction aesthetic, and some of the fun is in discovering the strange cultural intersections of Alpha’s katamari-ball metropolis. In the world of Valerian, ethereal CG aliens coexist with present-day space capsules, dirty station corridors become glowing grottoes, and Laureline’s wardrobe runs the gamut from a chic, retro military dress uniform to a grunge-y combination of zip-up rubber jacket and white lace gown. There’s a long sequence where Valerian simply dashes through half a dozen alien habitats, as if to underline just how big and strange Alpha is.
The film’s settings aren’t always original, but they’re gorgeously designed. It’s a combination of blockbuster space opera without the soulless glossiness, retro-futurism without the kitsch, and a gritty used future that still feels vibrant and fantastical. Fights and chases are shot more around environments than characters, and Besson uses this strategy to pull off a few unique and clever action sequences. In “Big Market,” a multidimensional shopping mall accessed with virtual reality gloves and glasses, a serious shootout scene playfully acknowledges how silly VR combat looks in real life — without ever diminishing the stakes or danger.
Valerian and Laureline, by contrast, are gratingly bland. He’s a womanizing rogue with a strong sense of duty, she’s a good girl with an Ivy League education (which apparently still exists in the 28th century), and their unresolved sexual tension permeates every mission. Or at least, that’s a decent paraphrase of their first conversation, in which they tediously explain their motivations, character traits, and relationship to date.
This dynamic is so cliche that DeHaan and Delevingne seem visibly bored with it. They slip in and out of lifeless bickering as though someone’s holding up a cue card, reminding them that they’re supposed to be in love. DeHaan’s deadpan delivery makes him seem like he’s satirizing his own character, which might be brilliant, if only his worst lines didn’t seem so genuine.
If Valerian were a serialized story, its characters would have room to grow into something more complex — we’d watch them making hard decisions, weathering life changes, and developing a personality based on actions, not informed attributes. But there’s no room to do that in two hours. As it stands, Valerian and Laureline are most compelling when they forget their assigned personalities and just act like wisecracking platonic partners. They’re still one-dimensional, but at least they’re not being shoved into roles that don’t fit.
The film’s supporting characters are even more of an afterthought. Clive Owen (Children of Men, The Knick) is a cardboard-cutout evil military commander. Sam Spruell (Snow White and the Huntsman) is a cardboard cutout good military commander. And Rihanna is a shapeshifting exotic dancer who’s given a preposterously convenient send-off after a couple of scenes. The Fifth Element produced one of science fiction’s most iconic protagonists, and even failed Besson characters — like Morgan Freeman’s pseudoscience-spouting professor in Lucy — tend to be memorably bad. But in Valerian, sentient beings are props and vehicles (sometimes literally) that get our heroes to their next adventure.
Besson is a passionate lifelong fan of Valérian et Laureline: he told a Comic-Con audience last year that his 10-year-old self fell in love with Laureline, and wanted to be Valerian. And the film he’s made, nearly 50 years later, is fannish in both the best and worst ways. It’s a loving, enthusiastic rendering of a world that’s delighted readers for decades. Instead of populating that world with characters, though, Besson built a story around audience placeholders. Audiences may well want to be Valerian or Laureline — in a place as interesting as Alpha, who wouldn’t? But that’s not the same thing as wanting to watch them.