Below is an extended version of my review from Popular Mechanics.
Though not a Pixar film, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” comes with its own accompanying short film. Technically it is just the opening credits sequence, but not even “Watchmen”‘s brilliant, tuneful introduction is as perfect. It’s like a rare mineral flung out in space for eons, finally orbiting back to us with luminescence, and explaining just how mankind might possibly save itself from extinction, all set to a David Bowie song.
It also sets up the forthcoming movies’s setting, Alpha, a hodgepodge collection of ship parts from the farthest depths of space. It’s a station where every conceivable life-form is represented and looks as if Deep Space Nine were designed like a Scrabble board after a really thorough match. But before we get there, we have to meet two of the interplanetary security agents who spend their time zooming into danger while looking too fabulous for this or any other world.
Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is our young, kinda-doofy 007 and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) is his wiser, put-upon, always gorgeous right-hand woman. Their attitudes are a little bit Millennial, but definitely with a sophisticated filter. The vision comes from French director/producer Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”, “Lucy”) by way of 43 years of French comics from Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières.
At times, the dialogue does feel like it’s translated from another language, but the repartee (and, alas, the acting) is not really the selling point. What “Valerian” has in more abundance than any other movie this summer is a visual exuberance that design-friendly sci fi fans will cherish for years to come. If this movie has no other legacy, know that the goal posts for convention cosplay have drastically changed.
Apart from the ships, weapons and groovy graphic interfaces, most of Besson’s attention is heaped upon Delevingne, who comports herself well as a modern, stylized spacewoman. She is more than a pin-up, but still the focus of everyone’s gaze. Her reactions shots range from typical action-adventure athleticism to screwball comedy, oftentimes just a fraction of a second apart. There’s a bit, for example, where she’s gotta put a giant jellyfish on her so she can have some sort of mind-meld experience, and it looks ridiculous, but she somehow sells the fun and the danger and still look dazzling. This is not easy. This woman is a star.
Visual cues come from everywhere in Besson’s world: early “Star Trek” (one ship really looks like Balok’s Fesarius) to the cover of Journey’s “Frontiers” album. A tourist in the absurd pan-dimensional “Big Market” is surely an homage to octogenarian French film director Agnès Varda; another woman is the spitting image of Jessica Rabbit.
Luckily, the story that breezes us through this outstanding optic panoply has just enough of the goods to keep us interested. Just enough, nothing more. Turns out there’s a conspiracy within the crypto-military government at Alpha, and only Valerian and Laureline can stop it. And it has something to do with a cuddly little creature that excretes iridescent pearls for some reason.
The movie, though, is called “Valerian”, and it’s time to address the spacelephant in the room. Dane DeHaan is no star-hopping rogue.
What makes “good acting” is a question no one can answer. And Dane DeHaan has been terrific in the past. (Go see his performance as Lucien Freud in “Kill Your Darlings”.) But he’s a collapsed neutron star of fun in this thing. There were times where I tried to rationalize it that he was going for an early Keanu Reeves-style knucklehead, but it just didn’t come together. I feel like any other handsome young man could have done this role, and maybe even brought more out of Delevigne.
There’s another big name in the cast, or at least the marketing: Rihanna. Crew-members in the Rihanna Navy should prepare themselves: she’s in this for maybe ten minutes. And most of that is just her voice. (She plays a shapeshifter in a nightclub, as if Odo were a stripper.) When she’s up there doing her thing (mostly changing in and out of fabulous clothes) it’s terrific. Just manage those expectations.
These faults, however, are negligible. Moreover, “Valerian” screams for a rewatch, because it wisely doesn’t over-explain itself. New technology isn’t discussed, it is shown. (Oh, Valerian can just, like, bash through walls? Fantastic!) The film follows wherever Besson’s imagination wants to go, and we are lucky to join the ride.