“Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”

Twenty years after “The Fifth Element” premiered to initially mixed reviews and then a massive cult following, Luc Besson has returned to the world of gonzo science-fiction, this time adapting the late 1960s French comic by Jean-Claude Mezieres that Besson loved as a kid and managed to serve as an inspiration for his own “The Fifth Element,” as well as plenty of other high-profile science-fiction projects. Fifty years after that comic originally premiered, it’s gotten its own big-budget French movie (though the dialogue is entirely English save for extra-terrestrial languages), one that attempts to replicate the artistic success of “The Fifth Element.”

The titular character Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is a federal agent who’s paired up with Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a lady that Valerian has fallen head over heels for in the course of their various missions, one of which has them nabbing a little critter known as The Replicator. The tiny alien creature is adorable and has the ability to defecate duplicates of whatever it consumes. Once they bring it back it to their base on Alpha-5 — a massive space station housing thousands of different alien species — it turns out a species of aliens wants the creature for their own and takes The Replicator into their possession from Valerian, Laureline and their superiors.

Our lead duo are then tasked with retrieving The Replicator, which is far from an easy task considering the massive space station they’re on. As Valerian and Laureline race to discover who exactly has stolen the tiny creature, they get into individual adventures involving all sorts of different aliens across various terrains that challenge their relationship while also coming to terms with a larger conspiracy they’ve become embroiled in. Even for two federal space-traveling agents so notably experienced in unusual missions, this is one adventure that’ll challenge both Valerian and Laureline to an incredible degree.

“Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” manages to become the second Dane DeHaan starring movie of 2017, following “A Cure For Wellness,” to have gorgeous cinematography and set design accompanied by a script that wraps the entire story around an aggravatingly obvious “Whodunit” storyline. Now, Valerian is better than that Gore Verbinski movie from this past winter, but it’s true that it greatly suffers from that very same storytelling problem that plagued “A Cure for Wellness.” The second and third acts of this Luc Besson movie are heavily reliant on figuring out who’s behind a grander plan than The Replicator and its alien kidnappers are involved in, but the supporting cast we meet before stuff goes south is so thinly developed that there’s only one person that could possibly be behind everything, meaning the plot loses a good chunk of its intended momentum.

Another poorly-defined script element that drags the movie down happens to be our titular lead character. Valerian, as a character, isn’t very interesting thanks to a constantly shifting personality whose nebulous nature gets highlighted by the clunky expository dialogue DeHaan is forced to deliver. For one scene, Valerian declares himself to be a sarcastic goofball who can’t take things seriously while a later pivotal climax scene has a super contrived romantic conflict moment centered around Valerian apparently being an ardent rule-follower. Asking the audience to become invested in this poorly-written character and his pining for Laureline really is too much to ask, especially since Dane DeHaan seems lost in the lead role as he bizarrely delivers facial expressions and line deliveries that run counter to what the script seems to want (certain pieces of dialogue where he expresses his affections for Laureline in his first scene that are supposed to be charming come off as “inappropriately intense” in the way he delivers them). I’ve found Dane DeHaan to be quite talented in other projects but he just can’t get a handle on his admittedly poorly written lead character.

It’s so weird that Besson decided to center the film around such a lackluster “whodunit” plotline and the lead character of Valerian since there’s a notable amount of elements in the movie that do work. Instead of so many repetetive scenes centered around the two lead characters dull will they/won’t they romance, why not more stuff like that amazing Alternate Dimension marketplace sequence that opens the film? That may be the apex of the entire production — this super cool shopping center that’s visually presented in a unique manner (you need special goggles to see it, for instance), there’s a cool John Goodman-voiced alien in this scene (who for some reason repeats verbatim the Liam Neeson “I will find you” monologue from fellow EuropaCorp movie “Taken”) and the action that transpires here is really fun and well-executed. It’s glorious unabashed science-fiction fun, a real rush of unbridled creativity and the same can be said for a later cosmic burlesque show that has Rihanna as a shape-shifting exotic dancer.

Unfortunately, too much of what comes after that scene is centered around boring expository dialogue and a tedious mystery, but at least the sets of the various alien locales on Alpha-5 are realized in a beautiful manner. “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” is very much a beautiful looking movie, gorgeous sets that show an incredible level of detail and the CGI aliens all look great too. If only some of the supporting characters that show up for singular scenes in Valerian and Laureline’s quest could have had larger roles, that might have injected some more life into certain weaker parts of the film. For what it’s worth though, supporting player Bob The Pirate is a lot of fun in his scene, particularly in his booze-soaked introductory moment and Ethan Hawke as a space cowboy pimp is absolutely wonderful. Hawke, decked out in with giant rings on his face that are connected from his nose to his ear, just goes all in on his performance that makes Chris Tucker in “The Fifth Element” look like a subdued acting turn. I wish Hawke had more than one scene to appear in because he’s loads of fun.

You know who else is fun in this? Cara Delevingne. She’s actually great as Laureline, naturally delivering this fun quick-wittedness about her character that makes her thoroughly entertaining to watch that totally puts her on my radar as an actor of note. Similarly cool is how “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” does try to convey some deeper ideas in its storyline, including a climax that probes deeper into the consequences of the kind of massive space dogfight that would close out any given Star Wars movie. Some of the ideas it tries to grapple with aren’t well-realized for sure but its thematic ambition is to be admired and there’s a lot in here to admire for sure, including some strong performances and one-of-a-kind glorious visuals. If only “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” could have had a more interesting lead character and a less distractingly convoluted narrative, it might have really reached the stars as a movie. It’s a fun enough ride that I’m sure will resonate deeply with certain moviegoers, I just wish that ride wasn’t so frequently bumpy and distracting me from its more thrilling elements.

One last thing to note: I’ve got no problems with that cute Replicator creature, but I don’t understand why every time it defecated copies of something, an act that’s supposed to inspire awe and wonder, the camera had to linger on the creature being in visible pain and fear while it defecated. Someone help the poor little guy instead of fawning over its feces!

Douglas Laman is a film critic,who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.