The Fifth Element? Sign me up! But unfortunately, Valerian is no Fifth Element.
Based on the French comics Valérian and Laureline, this new movie is set in the 28th century, principally aboard a giant interstellar station that's home to a variety of humans and aliens. It's a setting that lends itself to more of the gonzo visuals that made The Fifth Element so distinct. It's what Luc Besson might have done then if he'd had modern visual effects technology and a $200 million budget. (And, remarkably, Besson raised this money through crowd sourcing and self-financing. Valerian is the most expensive independent film ever made.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that this movie looks amazing. Frame after frame is a work of art unto itself. There's more to take in than you could possibly appreciate in one viewing. It's dense, loud, colorful, and generally awesome. The action sequences are wonderful -- especially an early one that unfolds in two parallel dimensions simultaneously. Even in the moments where you know that not one thing you're seeing on screen actually exists anywhere outside of a computer hard drive, it's a fun and compelling world in which to tell a story.
That story, or at least the way its told, leaves much to be desired.
Unlike The Fifth Element, which trusts the audience to make sense of and accept what its seeing, Valerian feels the need to explain a lot of what's going on. Most of this exposition is quite inelegantly shoehorned into the script, and a fair amount of it isn't necessary. (A sequence in which a computer explains the geopolitical landscape of the space station's inhabitants to two characters who know it already is especially painful.)
Meanwhile, other aspects of the film really could have used more context. It seems the main characters, Valerian and Laureline, are military officers of some kind. But it's a wholly disorganized military where every operation is lone wolf, there's no respect for rank or command structure, independent criminals are hired to help, and there's zero regard for collateral damage and civilian casualties. The heroes are too sloppy to seem good at their job, and the military in general is too haphazard for them to seem roguishly counter to authority.
And yet, I suspect this movie could have been made with exactly this script, incoherence and flaws and all, and still been quite enjoyable had it just been cast better. There are a few gems way down the call sheet. Ethan Hawke hams it up to great effect as a creepy pimp. Rihanna is well-placed as a shapeshifting dancer. There are fun cameos from Rutger Hauer and John Goodman (voicing a CG character).
But the top line cast sucks. As Valerian, Dane DeHaan comes off smarmy and insufferable when he should be irreverent and charming. As Laureline, Cara Delevingne is mostly wooden and occasionally grating when she should be cunning and witty. And their chemistry with each other is somehow worse than the sum of the parts; the two seem made for each other only in that you'd never wish them on anyone else.
It's impossible to watch the movie and not try to imagine Fifth Element-era Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in the roles. (Along with Gary Oldman replacing the one-note Clive Owen as the station's military commander.) Luc Besson was clearly trying to put the same heroic types here, a pair of unflappable badass rogues. DeHaan and Delevingne pretty much sink the movie (and seem far too young for their characters, to boot). Even not wishing you could cast from other decades, you could come up with plenty of actors that would have worked better here: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Lawrence, Keri Russell, just to name ones that immediately come to mind. I guess they went with cheap stars so they could put the money elsewhere. At least you can see the "elsewhere" on screen.
If you're going to see this movie at all, you should do it now. It's the sort of movie that deserves to be seen in a theater, on as big a screen as possible. But if you let that chance slide (and I couldn't blame you), don't bother to catch up with it later at home. It's just not worth it. Watch The Fifth Element one more time instead. I give Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets a C-.