Spiraling through the same vertiginous terrain as such nutty, chock-a-block sci-fi epics as 'Avatar' and David Lynch’s weird-on-weird 'Dune', the mega-expensive 'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets' flaunts a visual imagination on fire – and a human pulse that’s at best sporadic. Let’s just say it doesn’t skimp on the planets.
We’re only just beginning to take in a utopian 'Space Oddity'-scored prologue in which generations of astronauts, human and otherwise, meet peacefully at an orbiting space station when the action shifts to a gorgeous beach where an alien princess cavorts with a pet that poops pearls. Then there’s a desert world that’s home to a giant mall which you can only see with special glasses. Don’t get exhausted – we’ve got two more hours to go.
Based on a French comic-book series that dates back to 1967 and reportedly went into George Lucas’s food processor (along with much else) for 'Star Wars', 'Valerian' bears the typical weakness of having a central pair of bland human heroes, tasked with rooting out cosmic corruption that’s not worth explaining. Valerian himself (Dane DeHaan who, after his jerky turn in 'A Cure for Wellness', deserves sharper scripts) is a space jock whose every line reading makes you appreciate lesser, latter-day Han Solos like Chris Pine. Thankfully, model-turned-actor Cara Delevingne does a spunkier job with sidekick Laureline, diversifying her arsenal of expressions beyond a frowny face. Her caterpillar eyebrows and hypnotic fly-away hair qualify her as the most interesting life form onscreen, even in a film with squishy hippo-like waiters and Clive Owen.
The movie, France’s most costly to date, is written and directed by legendary crackpot Luc Besson, who, with such wonderfully silly projects as 'The Fifth Element' and 'Lucy', has made a career-long goal of steering his country’s cinema toward something glitzier than Godard. Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss Besson as someone who lacks soul: there’s a Frenchness to 'Valerian' that marks it as unlike anything Hollywood would dare.
Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting pole dancer with a penchant for poetry, Ethan Hawke is enlisted to play a pimp, and the climax is built around a notion of intergalactic humility (toward immigrants, in fact) that feels decidedly otherworldly. For those risks alone, this is welcome summer fare. If we’re going to have space operas, let them sing in the strangest accents possible.