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‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’

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Latest from Luc Besson a surreal, scattered space opera

It’s the summer, so you’re obviously expecting a handful of comic book movies. That’s the nature of the business right now – comics-based films sell.

But there’s more to comic books than just spandex and superpowers. And noted lunatic auteur Luc Besson would like to try and show you just how much more.

The writer-director’s latest is “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” based on the long-running French sci-fi comic “Valerian.” The ongoing story of a spacefaring hero and his smart, savvy partner as they have adventures throughout all of space and time, the comic made its debut in 1967; the series didn’t end until 2010.

It would seem like the perfect focus for Besson’s bats—t aesthetic. And his fondness for the source material is obvious; this is clearly a passion project. Unfortunately, while Besson’s vision remains as vivid and unabashedly weird as ever, the visual effectiveness is undercut considerably by narrative thinness, stilted performances and a lack of character development.

In the 28th century, humanity is far from alone in the universe – what started out as a mere space station has grown into a city known as Alpha, with a population of millions from dozens of alien races, all existing in harmony (more or less) and sharing their knowledge.

Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan, “A Cure for Wellness”) is a special agent with the police force of the human government. He and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne, “Suicide Squad”) spend their time undertaking secret missions and doing a lot of bantering. It’s a solid partnership – one that is threatened by their latest job.

The two are tasked with retrieving an item from a smuggler on behalf of Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen, “The Confirmation”) – an item that just happens to be an animal that is purportedly the last of its species, thanks to the destruction of its home world, the planet Mul.

But there’s a lot more to it than a simple retrieval; there are ramifications hidden here that are far beyond anything Valerian and Laureline could have expected. They have no idea who their friends are or where their enemies might suddenly rear their heads. Danger – huge danger – lurks everywhere. They have no one to trust except one another.

If it all sounds a little vague, well … that’s because it is. There’s no denying the movie’s visual impact; it’s a sci-fi feast for the eyes. That’s no surprise from the guy who gave us “The Fifth Element,” really – no one does outsized candy-colored space opera madness like Luc Besson. And an alien melting pot setting certainly gives him plenty of creative room to play. You might wind up with a bit of CGI fatigue – it’s all a bit … much – and too often the film feels derivative of what he did with “Element,” but you can’t argue Besson’s ability to engage the eyes.

However, the story itself doesn’t live up to the bar set by the manner of its telling. It’s all very meh – hero chases McGuffin has been done and done and done some more – and with nary a new wrinkle on the formula, the narrative falls flat. And while I understand that to some extent, the story’s primary purpose was always going to be an excuse to show cool stuff, we still need a reason to care about what we’re seeing - and we never really get one.

Obviously, the script is a problem, but Besson’s cast doesn’t do him any favors. DeHaan and Delevingne are both flat. So much so that you wonder if that was a deliberate (and ill-considered) choice. There’s zero chemistry between the two and neither one convinces you for a second that they are anything other than mildly bored in front of a green screen. Neither has nearly the necessary charisma to carry the screen alone, but together, they actually become less engaging.

The supporting cast is the usual, a weird collection of randomly assembled folks that is a Besson hallmark. Owen is fine as the Commander; he seems a bit stunned throughout, as though he’s unsure how he got there, but he’s OK. But the randos, man – the randos. You have singer Rihanna as some sort of morphing entertainment alien. There’s Ethan Hawke as a space pimp named Jolly the Pimp. Oh, and the defense minister is Herbie Hancock (yes, that one) and Rutger Hauer plays the President at one point.

Like I said. Weird.

Look, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” isn’t a very good movie. Too many flaws for even an admittedly excellent visual style to overcome. However, if you’re already a fan of Besson and his Europa Corp sensibility – particularly if you’re a “Fifth Element” believer – you’re going to enjoy yourself.

[3.5 out of 5]

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