The wheels don’t totally come off the wagon once Valerian and Laureline arrive on Alpha, but there’s never much reason to care about what the investigation our heroes have come to pursue. We’re told that the massive space melting pot is rotting from the inside out — that a nefarious void is growing from the starship’s core like a tumor — but Besson’s script never allows for much mystery as to what might be lurking in the depths. Once we meet the openly nefarious Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen, in a thankless role), it’s clear that “Valerian and the Goblet of Fire” or whatever is itself suffering from a void at its core.
Alpha is a miraculous place, a Wonderland in orbit, but this incredible world is desperately in search of a story worth its sights. Besson’s film is mesmerizing as long as Valerian and Laureline keep digging towards the center, diving through massive computer circuits and stealing parasites off the backs of giant alien scallops in their quest towards the big nothing at the end of the tunnel, but the vividness of this place only underscores the lifelessness of the people leading us through it.
VALERIAN SAS Ð TF1 FILMS PRODUCTION
Occasionally, the movie’s focus aligns with its virtues, and Besson has reason to slow down and focus on Alpha’s diverse population. Not since “Avatar” has a movie been so in love with its own creations. From the trio of duckbilled data savants to the hammer-headed fishermen who try to feed Laureline to their king, “Valerian” is at its best when it feels like a “Star Wars” spinoff about all the fantastical creatures who bleep-blorp through the background; it’s like a reservoir for all of the creativity that Disney is trying to eliminate from a galaxy far, far away.
The film’s most fun aside — the one involving Rihanna as Bubble, the most guileless sex slave in the entire galaxy — epitomizes Besson’s singular gift for threading the needle between spectacle and stupidity. For 15 glorious minutes, you’re watching exactly the movie that he wanted to make. Like the Fhloston Paradise sequence from “The Fifth Element,” it’s a self-contained episode in which cartoon beauty collides with real pathos. And then it ends and we’re forced back to Valerian and Laureline, forced to remember that “The Fifth Element” is such an enduring delight because Ruby Rhod and the Diva Plavalaguna don’t feel like a reprieve from its heroes.
If only Bubble could have been the lead character (hell, with her abilities, she could have been all the characters). How fitting that would have been for a movie about a sci-fi world where humans are just one species in a sea of many. “Valerian” imagines a multi-cultural future where diversity has assumed extraterrestrial dimensions, where life is so varied and fractured that entire species can be wiped away without anyone asking questions. Besson presents a future in which people are the least interesting things in the universe, and yet the world still revolves around us. A white dude is still pulling the strings of power. Equality is still hard because erasure is still easier. There are 394 million stories on the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian’s might be the only one we’ve seen before. Still, any excuse to visit this place is one worth taking.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” opens in theaters on July 21st.