Miscast Leads Cripple Would-Be Space Epic "Valerian"

Luc Besson’s 2014 sci-fi stink bomb “Lucy” at least had the civility to get in and out in an hour and a half. His latest, the French comic-based “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets,” bumbles around for 140 excruciating minutes before finally putting us out of our misery, accomplishing little but burning the name Valerian into our brains as new shorthand for bloated, empty big screen science fiction.

You’re relieved, “Tomorrowland.”

Dane DeHaan (“A Cure For Wellness”) stars as the title character, a simpering space cadet unhealthily obsessed with his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne, “Paper Towns”). The actors have as much chemistry as a pair of defective toasters, wildly ill fated in their quest to carry a $200 million space epic whose only concern is trippy visuals. Both leads have done solid work before, demonstrating considerable charm, if not range. But “Valerian” is a career suicide mission. Guiding such unappealing characters through such a garbled story is a fool’s errand and DeHaan and Delevingne are those fools, the faces on Besson’s colorful but utterly unintelligible and charmless film.

The screenplay is a cold gumbo of parts from other pictures: George Lucas’ Mos Eisley meets James Cameron’s Pandora meets Mad Libs, like the worst parts of “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack Of The Clones” stitched together in one long, toxic “Star Wars” supercut. The visuals are bubblebum no doubt, but less the desired rush of flavor, more a thick wad stuck in the audience’s hair. There’s no scissors to get “Valerian” out, though. Grin and bear, text and tweet, or call an Uber much earlier than planned. It doesn’t get better. With one exception.

The movie perks up at the 80-minute mark with the arrival of pop star Rihanna. She plays a dancer named Bubble who’s actually a tentacled, shape-shifting midnight blue alien. Bubble is the rare case where the film’s daffiness works in its favor. Her brief character arc is so much livelier than anything else in “Valerian” that it ends up functioning as a spotlight on the rest of the film. As previously seen in “Lucy,” Besson has lost all touch with coherent storytelling, but with Bubble he’s at least stumbled onto an appealing mix of personality and character design. It doesn’t hurt that Rihanna’s appearance is accompanied by an unusually flamboyant Ethan Hawke. He plays Bubble’s pimp.

But then Bubble is gone and we’re left to Valerian and Laureline to walk us through an unconscionably verbose climax. Clive Owen’s screen time as a slippery military man is no consolation for such a lame third act, where an Avatar-esque character voiced by Elizbeth Debicki finally explains the movie’s opening. Amplified is the feeling that “Valerian” was produced and focus-grouped by children, as if entirely constructed by an hour-long roundtable with second graders. Do this! Then do that! That would be so cool!

There are inventions on Besson’s part that are neat, like glasses featured in an early sequence that allow Valerian to see a third dimension. Except, the glasses are purely in service of a setpiece, having no greater effect on the story. And when imaginary items outshine the characters wearing them, it might be time to call it. The time of death on “Valerian” is almost immediate.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: July 21, 2017
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: Luc Besson
Screenwriter: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language)