Among this year’s crop of summer blockbusters, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is probably the underdog. Although it’s based on a revered comic book series that influenced Star Wars, it can’t rely on a huge global fanbase like Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming. Factor in a rumoured £138 million production budget – enough to make this the most expensive independent film ever – and writer-director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has taken a massive gamble here.
His film begins with the familiar sound of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and a flimsy introduction to a couple of 28th century space agents. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is convinced his relationship with Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) should become more than professional, but she thinks he’s a player who can’t commit. Their basic dynamic barely develops for the next two hours, but after some lively if mindless set-pieces, something approaching a plot begins to crystallise. A mysterious corrosive mass is threatening Alpha, an enormous space metropolis housing species from a thousand planets, including the human race. Against the wishes of crotchety commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline are dispatched to discover what’s behind it.
The film’s visual effects are always impressive and sometimes breathtaking, but there’s little beneath the surface sheen. ‘Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets’ suffers from a crippling lack of heart, partly because its characters are so vacuous. Miscast, DeHaan lacks the swagger to make Valerian the wisecracking hero he’s supposed to be, although he’s hardly helped by Besson’s horrible leaden dialogue. Delevingne’s Laureline is more convincing, but her signature reactions – a disapproving eye roll, an irked smirk – are soon overplayed. When Rihanna appears as shape-shifting entertainer Bubble, she initially lifts the film. But she’s sunk too when Besson asks her to supply emotional beats her character just hasn’t earned.
In several scenes, Besson and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast manage to create a world so immersive you couldn’t care less what’s happening in it. But most of the time, the film feels like an emotionally empty mess. It’s hard to fault Besson’s ambition, but his gamble hasn’t paid off.