Say what you will about French director Luc Besson: his movies have a unique look to them.
That is certainly true as he returns to sci-fi with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
After a brief opening where we learn the origin of the title location, Alpha, beginning in Earth orbit around 1975, we shift forward a few centuries to…a beach planet. That interlude may seem to take a while, but it’s important, and soon we’re on another beach (sort of) as Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are off on a mission of some importance to find and claim the last known specimen of an alien species from, as it turns out, the black market at an other-dimensional shopping mall. Valerian is flirting like crazy with Laureline, who’s basically having none of it. Now if only Valerian knew why he had that vision of the beach planet…
I’m not overly familiar with the source material of Valerian and Laureline graphic novels aside from the one reprint I read of their first three adventures. As such, I can’t say for certain how faithful Besson was as a writer and director to a source material he apparently is a huge fan of. As such, what I can say is there’s a lot of visual spectacle here, in a style similar to what Besson deployed with The Fifth Element. It’s unique to Besson, and that makes it stand out amongst the sorts of general blockbuster special effects bloat that can appear this time of year.
But Besson does his own thing here. For one, he takes detours. The beach planet interlude seems to go on for a while, mostly to give the audience a feel for what the beach planet and its people were like before something big happened to them. Likewise, these sorts of plot digressions, for lack of a better description, keep happening. They provide color and flavor to the movie, even if they seem weird. The most memorable is probably when Valerian drops in on a shapeshifting entertainer played by Rhianna while Ethan Hawk is her sleazy manager accompanying her on a weird piano. That seems to be the sort of digressions that Besson got from the source material, but I may be wrong about that. Maybe he just wanted a shapeshifting Rhianna.
That said, that distracting technique does cost the film, as does the casting of Delevingne as she doesn’t seem to be much of an actress. I wouldn’t say I hated the movie, but I would say it probably works better for people who loved The Fifth Element. I’m not one of those people. Seven and a half moments when the French creation tells someone he doesn’t speak French.