"VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS" — 2½ stars — Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, Rihanna; PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language); in general release
Based on the 1960s French comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" seems determined to showcase as many of those planets' inhabitants as possible. Director Luc Besson's film is one of the most visually ambitious efforts of the year, but the CGI showcase isn't quite enough to boost a story that frequently looks and feels like James Cameron's long-rumored "Avatar" sequel.
The plot follows the adventures of two intergalactic federal agents. We meet Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) immediately after he wakes from a disturbing vision involving a race of aliens that look a lot like "Avatar's" Na'vi. Valerian is a cocky ladies' man who looks about 17, but sounds just like Keanu Reeves if you close your eyes. His eyes are aimed squarely at his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a skilled up-and-coming agent who is way too smart to fall for Valerian's charms … at least right away.
The agents work out of Alpha Station, a vast space station that evolved from its humble Earth orbit beginnings into a labyrinth of structures and cultures that has been floating through space for over 400 years. Under the orders of Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline have been sent to intercept a tiny alien creature called the Mül Converter, native to the same planet Valerian saw in his vision, which has drawn the interest of a number of dangerous parties.
After obtaining the Converter in an action sequence set in a kind of inter-dimensional shopping mall, Valerian and Laureline learn about a disturbing concentration of radiation at the center of the Alpha Station. So far, attempts to investigate the disturbance have been lethal, and it's around here that Commander Filitt is kidnapped by members of the same alien race Valerian saw in his vision.
As Valerian and Laureline set out to rescue the commander, they begin to assemble the pieces of the greater puzzle. The plot races from one dazzling CGI set piece to the next, filling the screen with all manner of exotic and cartoonish alien life forms and environments, all contained within Alpha Station.
"Valerian's" somewhat campy visual style feels consistent with 1997's "The Fifth Element," which Besson also directed. Fans of that film and of the original Valerian comic will likely have the most to appreciate here. But outsiders may find difficulty engaging with the story, which offers dialogue that, while consistent with the pulp sci-fi genre, feels tired coming from the young mouths of "Valerian's" leads.
Labored with a clunky third act and some ill-designed exposition, the film's run time of 137 minutes feels bloated, and one lengthy tangent involving pop star Rihanna as a shape-shifting sex slave and a battle against a man-eating band of heavy-set alien fishermen feels like an excuse to showcase more CGI.
"Valerian's" socially conscious message also feels pretty well-trod. The original comic series may have been published back in the 1960s, and likely inspired much of what has followed in the decades since, but in spite of all its visual eye candy, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" can't shake the vibe of a production we've all seen before, and better.
"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language; running time: 137 minutes.