It's hard not to wonder if Luc Besson had sat down and watched Paper Towns before making the ill-fated decision to cast co-lead Cara Delevingne, one hell of a supermodel and a decent enough actress in certain projects, before deciding to cast the rangeless performer who doesn't begin to capture Besson's vibe nor the clever, sneering romantic banter needed to sell the quirky relationship that Delevingne's Laureline has with the film's title character, Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a sardonic interstellar agent with an abundance of heroism and a charisma that also evades the film's other co-lead, a grossly miscast Dane DeHaan.
It's a shame, really. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets kicks off in fine fashion with an opening 15-minute sequence that is nothing short of dazzling and promises a film that Besson ultimately doesn't deliver. In fact, it's a film that Besson couldn't possibly deliver with two co-leads whose screen presence vacillates between dreadfully boring and uncomfortably squirm-inducing.
It says an awful lot about the promise of the film that even with two weak co-leads that Besson manages to create a film that is still worth watching, a handful of side characters more delightfully cast and Besson's usual visual style on point as usual.
Based upon a French comic series that lasted from 1967-2010, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is set in the 28th century. Valerian and Laureline are a pair of operatives tasked with maintaining order throughout the human territories. The Minister of Defense assigns them a mission to the remarkable city of Alpha, an expanding metropolis where species from throughout the universe converage to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with one another. But, something is amiss. There's a dark force that is threatening the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets and it is up to Valerian and Laureline to stop this dark force before it destroys Alpha and the universe.
Truthfully, you won't much care.
Besson has always had a gift for crafting working classy, fun-loving films with an abundance of action a distinct personality. It's that personality that's really missing from the visually dazzling but soulless Valerian. On the other hand, Clive Owen has some fun as the resident baddie and Herbie Hancock is an absolute hoot as the administrator whose efforts to wrangle the constantly bickering Valerian and Laureline mostly go to waste. Rumored to have a production budget around $185 million, if true making it the most expense film in French history, it seems absurd to think the film has any hope of recouping its expenses stateside - especially opening alongside Christopher Nolan's megabuzz Dunkirk. However, Besson's universal appeal may salvage the film once global receipts are included.
Valerian is easily Besson's most elaborate and creative production since he gave us The Fifth Element, though it's less in a sci-fi/flashy way and more in a weird and quirky way. Rihanna's appearance, and it's always weird when I have to acknowledge that Rihanna is one of a film's highlights, is infinitely compelling and she at least seems to understand the source material more completely than either DeHaan or Delevingne. John Goodman shows up in a single-scene cameo, though it's a memorable one that won't be spoiled here.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film of such great potential that it's practically painful to watch it unfold with such disappointing results. The film's first hour is reasonably entertaining, though the lasts solidly over two hours and by the end it's become a repetitive, lifeless endeavor with stalled dialogue and an awkward pacing problem that never corrects itself. While editing a little more tightly would have helped, it would have helped even more to admit defeat a few weeks into filming and starting over with different co-leads.
DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry, a problem that also plagued Delvingne in Paper Towns where she seemed to be existing in a different film than eveyrone else. DeHaan gives us an approach we've seen before, think A Cure for Wellness, but here it's ineffective and lifeless. Delevingne does manage to project some spark into Laureline. I'd dare say she's getting better as an actress, though she's not yet strong enough to overcome a weak co-lead and material that she simply doesn't always seem to grasp.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is so visually arresting and such an amazing world that to complete trash the film would be a gross injustice, though it's undeniably one of summer 2017's greater disappointments as it has such remarkable potential and just never gets there. It's a decent film, at times even a good one, but it's also that rare Besson film where wacky doesn't equal watchable and stylish without substantial is ultimately much less satisfying.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic