In Luc Besson's space dud Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, you find out what $200 million can buy you these days in special effects.
He's Valerian, a special agent (working for a future-world, outer-space government) who, teamed with girlfriend and fellow agent (Delevingne), is dispatched by a general (Clive Owen) to confiscate a tiny creature highly prized by a variety of competing factions, all related to a conspiracy that traces back to the destruction of a paradise planet.
The story is ridiculous, the digressions many, but it's all intended to be part of the fun. Like Besson's The Fifth Element, we're mainly meant to enjoy the sensation of watching wacky green-screen worlds unfold before us.
But there is something disappointingly familiar about Besson's world-building (drawn from a popular series of graphic novels), considering the blank check he was given and the fact that he runs his own studio, which gave him the opportunity to come up with something utterly startling and original. Instead, Besson's paradise planet (where the film opens) looks like Avatar crossed with SpongeBob, and we have long-snouted, animated characters and others with eyes at the end of appendages that look like obvious borrows from the world of George Lucas — particularly the Jabba-like creature (right down to the voice) that Valerian encounters early in the movie.
Besson counts on jolts of energy from pop-up stars such as Rihanna, cast as a shape-shifting cabaret act who assists the agents, but in truth she was better in Battleship. (Also, Ethan Hawke in eyeliner makes for an unconvincing impresario/pimp).
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets becomes one of those movies that offers digital spectacle but is somehow not spectacular. (I saw it in 2D, so the 3D version, available in some theaters, may convey more of what Besson had in mind.) One also wonders why, if the story is a throwaway contrivance, Besson drags everything out for 2 hours and 20 minutes. It's tough on DeHaan and Delevingne — their painful lack of rapport grows more exposed as the running time extends.
The movie's wild indulgence puts you in mind of the Wachowski siblings' Jupiter Ascending, but at least we are spared that movie's grinding pretentiousness. Besson wants to send us on a funky (his universe is run by Herbie Hancock!) space trip, but the ship never takes off.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Directed by Luc Besson. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Rihanna, Herbie Hancock, Ethan Hawke. Distributed by Europa Corp.
Running time: 2 hours and 17 minutes.
Parents guide: PG-13 (sci-fi violence).