Bright Lights, Big City

Luc Besson's newest sci-fi swashbuckler is overflowing with visual invention, even if it's dumb as a brick

Bright Lights, Big City
You'd look like that, too, if your $200 million blockbuster bombed as badly as Valerian has.

There's a lot to look at in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and almost nothing to think about. The film's primary concern is to wow us with the enormity of its own vision, as if it's constantly challenging itself to be the single most elaborate sci-fi bauble ever made, and it certainly succeeds as sheer spectacle. If it could physically bust out from the confines of the screen, it would.

The movie is inspired by a long-running French comic book series that debuted in 1967 and reportedly influenced Star Wars, so you'll recognize a lot of similarities here — the bustling marketplaces, the laser gun battles, massive squads of warring ships, stern generals backed by faceless battalions, solemn summits between outer space diplomats. And as if it's doubling down on the films' shared DNA, a character in Valerian takes the time to utter that well-worn Star Wars catchphrase: "I've got a bad feeling about this."

If only we got any characters as engaging as Han Solo. Our heroes here are two complete blanks named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), space agents who get into various skirmishes and scrapes throughout the galaxy in the 28th century. Valerian is meant to be, I guess, some kind of intergalactic Errol Flynn, though DeHaan plays him with a glowering sense of detachment. (He calls himself a "galaxy-hopping bad boy," which is something a true galaxy-hopping bad boy would never need to announce.) He's always professing his love for Laureline, though she's dubious regarding his intentions, especially since he keeps a digital log of all his romantic conquests.

The plot, you ask? As far as I can parse, it involves an enchanted pearl, which once belonged to the sparkly humanoid inhabitants of a paradise planet that was decimated years ago by Earthlings. This pearl, we're told, is the last of its kind and apparently harnesses enough energy to destroy entire galaxies, so when Valerian and Laureline get their hands on it, they're chased about by all manner of ruffians, including its rightful owners.

True to its unwieldy title, every scene in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets seems to take place in an entirely different solar system with its own unique ecosystem. We bounce around from place to place without much rhyme or reason, encountering scrap merchants, back-alley arms dealers, flesh-eating toad-men, wisecracking alien sidekicks and such strange supporting characters as a cowboy-hat-sporting pimp played by Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna in a one-and-a-half-scene cameo as a shapeshifting burlesque performer called Bubble.

None of this makes a lick of sense, and it somehow manages to be translucently thin and needlessly convoluted at the same time. But there are some stellar action sequences, including one that nicely encapsulates the film's madcap verve: Valerian, pursuing the creatures who have kidnapped his commander (a slumming Clive Owen), goes crashing through walls, zipping through underwater caverns and tumbling through space, all while his spacesuit instantly adapts to each new environment.

The mad puppeteer pulling all these strings is writer-director Luc Besson, whose personal brand of gaudy, candy-colored excess is visible in every lovingly detailed frame. As he did in The Fifth Element and Lucy, Besson indulges here in a bizarre, fitfully amusing mixture of steampunk, psychedelia and Looney Tunes-style slapstick, and the first 80 or so minutes of Valerian are relentlessly, breathlessly kinetic. Too bad that it then plods on for another hour.

Besson has clearly put an awful lot of care (and money — its budget reportedly exceeded $200 million) into the outlandish sets, costumes, character designs and special effects. His script, meanwhile, is wooden, espousing tired themes about the importance of human decency. (At one point, Delevingne actually utters the truism "Love is more powerful than anything else" with an admirably straight face.) This film is daffy, exhausting, occasionally dazzling and frequently befuddling, unbelievably dumb but with visual imagination to spare.

Your eyes will be popping when they aren't rolling. ♦

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    About The Author

    Nathan Weinbender

    Nathan Weinbender is the former music and film editor of the Inlander. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.