Luc Besson is an optimist at heart. That defining trait accounts for the candy-colored, utopian vision of the future depicted in the French director's "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." It also accounts for the leap of faith that convinced the filmmaker that two relatively untested leads could carry his massively ambitious space opera on their shoulders. The gamble doesn't exactly pay off, but Besson's grand vision is brought to the screen with such impeccable style that it manages to outweigh the film's considerable flaws.
Based on "Valérian et Laureline," a popular series of French graphic novels by Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières that have been around since the 1960's, "Valerian" has been a long-brewing passion project for Besson. Set in the 28th century, the titular duo (played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) are special agents who travel the galaxy fighting crime. The plot of the film (which is needlessly convoluted considering it's mostly beside the point) finds the pair becoming embroiled in a noir-style mystery centered around Alpha, a sprawling space station metropolis made up of interconnected planets, and a lost race of alien beings whose home world was destroyed under mysterious circumstances.
As characters, Valerian and Laureline are meant to be archetypes: he's the roguish hero; she's the sharp-tongued, put-upon partner who's every bit his equal. They're the kind of roles that require outsized personalities to play them, but neither DeHaan nor Delevingne are quite up to the task.
I generally like DeHaan as an actor, but his best roles (like in Gore Verbinski's "A Cure for Wellness" earlier this year) are defined by a certain low-key intensity. He's been a great many things on screen, but dashing has never been one of them. Delevingne fares slightly better. She has a compelling presence that was put to good use in "Paper Towns," then significantly less so as The Enchantress in last summer's "Suicide Squad" -- although in fairness, no actor could have made that character work. Here, both leads feel like the bland leading the bland.
They're done no favors by Besson's script. The clunky banter they get saddled with suggests the filmmaker may have written the screenplay first in his native French, then relied on Google Translate when it came time to make extra copies for his actors.
But where "Valerian" truly excels is its jaw-dropping visuals and production design, filled to the brim with oddball, increasingly bizarre characters, locations, and costumes. The film probably could have benefitted from at least one more action sequence, but the ones that are here are deliriously inventive -- one of the best involves a foot chase that unfolds in two different dimensions simultaneously. Also fun is a burlesque dance number performed by Rihanna, as a shape-shifting alien creature named Bubble. Admittedly, that scene stops the film dead in its tracks, but it's worth it.
Like Besson's "The Fifth Element" cranked to 11, the frequently dazzling "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" has enough pure, extravagant spectacle and admirable ambition to qualify as a satisfying summer entertainment. Still, with a narrative and lead performances to match, it might have been a new science-fiction classic.
Visit rochestercitynewspaper.com on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "Atomic Blonde," starring Charlize Theron.