As its all-encompassing title suggests, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a vast sci-fi cornucopia.
It is an eye-popping encore from the director of “The Fifth Element,” a densely packed screen that overwhelms you with sights unseen and worlds beyond imagination. Luc Besson and his team out-“Avatar” James Cameron when it comes to state-of-the-art eye candy.
It’s light and goofy, a “Flash Gordon” for our times pairing up two pretty young space commandos on a meandering video game string of quests — magical talismans included — that somehow fit into their simple, original mission. Skewing young, it plays like the many lesser “Harry Potter” pictures, interested in our hero and heroine’s quest, more interested in the exotic creatures and stunning things it can show us.
Costumes, alien races, technology and geography dazzle, and if that’s not enough — there’s model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne and her eyebrows-without-end, and sleepy-eyed island siren Rihanna and sleepier-eyed Dane DeHaan center stage.
If summer movies are morphing into game-inspired thrill rides, “Valerian” is the next logical step — pointless chases that hurtle through wildly imaginative gamescapes as seen by the character doing the running, shootouts that have everything but a body-count scorecard at the bottom of the screen, banal dialogue and thinly developed characters.
It’s a lot to take in, with nothing worth absorbing.
DeHaan is the title character, a government agent long teamed up with Agent Laureline (Delivingne, of “Pan” and “Paper Towns”). He’s a player who longs to marry his partner, and she’s not having it. Not pre-mission, with them parked on a Holodeck beach, or on the mission itself — racing their spaceship across the cosmos to pluck the last Mul Converter from an other-dimensional “million stores” bazaar.
Naturally, that’s in the desert. Science fiction films should swear off alien deserts for a decade or two.
We’ve already seen this alien world, Mul, peopled by lanky, glittery digitally-enhanced runway ready transgender models, destroyed — collateral damage in some vast battle in space. The movie’s most touching and fanciful scenes are here, on Mul in the film’s prologue.
Valerian and Laureline dash back to Alpha, the ultimate outcome of humanity’s space-station-building mania. It’s a vast interstellar cosmopolis, with a myriad of races in an endless variety of environments — underwater, underground — all cobbled together in a floating mass that supports millions.
Clive Owen is their trigger-happy commander, the jazz icon Herbie Hancock is the “minister” in charge of their team. There are battlebots and spies, portly American tourists, alien hustlers and smugglers (John Goodman voices this film’s version of Jabba the Hutt), and a red light district where every sexual fantasy — and fanboy fantasy (look for a version of Jessica Rabbit) — can be fulfilled.
That’s where Bubble (Rihanna), a shape-shifting dancer, does her show-stopping act. Ethan Hawke, taking his costume cues from Mardi Gras, Captain Jack Sparrow and Woody Harrelson’s “Zombieland” hunter, is her musical accompanist and pimp.
Besson should have spent the money on a rewrite, to dress up the dreadfully dull comic book dialogue, if nothing else. “Valerian!” is exclaimed more often than “Harry Potter!” was, which was a lot — enough to warrant a drinking game.
The banter — “The honeymoon comes AFTER the wedding. You know that, right?” — rarely interrupts “Valerian, be careful!” variations.
I’d dwell on the three short, obsequious anteater-snouted aliens (Shingouz) who sell information as a little old-fashioned intergalactic French anti-Semitism. But you’ll see that for yourself.
It’s epic, the action beats are sturdy and the laughs — while not plentiful — give it a “Guardians Lite” tone. “Valerian” has more of a sense of wonder about this exotica than the “Star Wars” universe, and more of a universe for that matter.
But for all that, it needed effort on a higher plane to eclipse the other ambitious but generally disappointing sci-fi of this summer. Workshop the story, script-doctor the dialogue and recast the lovely leads with actors who generate a little actual sexual heat and Besson might have had another “Fifth Element,” a minor classic on his hands.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Cast: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke
Credits:Written and directed by, Luc Besson, based on the French comic book. An STX/Europa release.
Running time: 2:12