Few cinephiles would accuse Luc Besson of being a master storyteller.
The French auteur’s greatest strength is visuals, his films — the most recent being 2014’s uneven “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson — generally look very cool and slick even if they don’t always draw you into what’s going on in them or keep you enthralled for the duration. A good example of this is 1997’s “The Fifth Element,” a work of sci-fi that has its share of admirers due to the over-the-top goings-on that dazzle the eyes.
Besson’s latest work is another slice of science-fiction, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” based on the decades-old French comic series “Valérian and Laureline.” Its story isn’t always coherent, but “Valerian” is, for the most part, an enjoyable adventure with, yes, some nifty visuals.
Written and directed by Besson and set centuries in the future, “Valerian” defies at least one expectation in a very appealing way when it comes to its attractive lead characters, space operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). While the former predictably pursues his professional partner romantically in an aggressive way and she fends him off because she doesn’t believe he’s ready to eschew his freewheeling bachelor ways for a serious, committed relationship, both of them — not just him — are recklessly fly-by-the-seat-of-their-spacepants types when it comes to the job. He didn’t read a briefing before a big mission? Does this anger her? Heck no — neither did she!
That shared thirst for adventure, along with an endearing and fierce loyalty to one another on the job, goes a long way in powering “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
Although the film begins with a lengthy prologue that takes us through a centuries-long history of a space station built by earth but eventually sent into space when its weight threatened to cause it to fall out of orbit, the adventure largely concerns a mysterious race of bald, thin and elegant humanoids who first appear to Valerian in a dream. These beautiful people and their lovely, energy-rich world understandably fascinate him.
But one of his and Laureline’s superiors, Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), seems to be invested in keeping as many people in the dark as possible when it comes to this race, including the two agents. Nonetheless, their adventure brings them closer and closer to this people and their princess, who seems to be linked to Valerian in some way.
At one point, Laureline will have to risk much to rescue her partner, and later the situation is reversed. Seemingly nothing will keep these two apart, so we can’t help but wonder how long Laureline will be able to keep things strictly professional — even if she doesn’t like Valerian dreaming of some bald alien babe.
Like many other modern action movies, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a slice of attention-deficit theater. Our heroes seldom do anything for more than, say, five minutes, Besson stacking mini adventure on top of mini adventure for most of the film. But, unlike some other movies that do this — hey, “Transformers: The Last Knight,” we’re looking in your general direction — the action isn’t so bombastic and mind-numbing that you tune out. It manages to be continually fun.
All that said, it does run low on fuel by the final stretch. In fact, about three-fourths of the way through “Valerian,” the movie’s namesake enjoys a one-woman/multiple-outfit burlesque show by a shape-shifting alien portrayed by popstar/actress Rihanna, and it never reaches its previous highs after that. Hey, maybe there’s just nowhere to go but down after Rihanna.
DeHaan (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “A Cure for Wellness”) continues to impress with this effort, even if he’s probably too often low-key here. He seemingly can’t help but be interesting on screen, which helps lift his character to something at least slightly above-average. And Delevingne, who’s also a model, gets a better showcase for her talents than 2016’s messy “Suicide Squad,” in which she portrayed the Enchantress. Like DeHaan, she brings something a little interesting to “Valerian.” Most importantly, they are enjoyable as a package deal.
At nearly two hours and 20 minutes, Besson lets “Valerian” run a little long, but he does deliver on the promises of strong visuals — at least strong enough, especially in the optional 3-D. In this future, humanity has the ability to operate in multiple dimensions in the same place, allowing for a very inventive sequence early in the movie where Valerian infiltrates a huge marketplace on a planet that can be accessed in a parallel dimension. While he is there, Laureline and other member of a strike force coordinate with him nearby but, in a sense, another universe away. It’s pretty heady stuff, and it’s well-executed by Besson.
Ultimately, we wouldn’t mind further adventures with Valerian and Laureline. That could be a tall order, however. Besson has stated that for a sequel to be green-lit, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” will have to make roughly twice what it cost to make — and its budget of about $180 million is said to be the biggest ever for a French film.
Hmmm, wonder how much of that went to Rihanna. Possibly not enough.
‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’
In theaters: July 21.
Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 17 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.5.
STX Entertainment via AP