Confession: There are times when I've been loyally in Luc Besson's corner – the visual splendour of Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988) and La Femme Nikita (1990) established him as a master of what the French call Cinéma du Look. And 1994's The Professional – with Jean Reno teaching the assassin's game to a very young Natalie Portman – went deeper, blending style with a nurturing sense of humanity. Plus, there's a lot to be said in favor of both his sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element (1997) and last year's next-level ScarJo-evolution whatsit Lucy. But Besson has also screwed up badly through the years: The less said about the Joan of Arc fiasco The Messenger (1999) and the very visibly animated turkey Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), the better.
So what to make, then, of his latest passion project Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets? It's as gorgeous as anything the French filmmaker has made and as empty as a Trump tweet. You either go with it or you don't. You can make the effort, but after a punishingly 137 minutes – and Valerian does not get better as it goes along – your enthusiasm is likely to collapse. Still, it must be said that this overstyled fantasy is anything but a cynical cashgrab in the Michael Bay manner. Never once do you think that Besson's heart isn't in it. That's what makes this such a noble failure rather than fresh evidence of a faltering career.
Set in the 28th century, Valerian is based on a series of French graphic novels by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières that the director says he's been reading since childhood. It's clear that the 58-year-old filmmaker is trying to capture the childlike wonder he felt when he first encountered this sci-fi space oddity. But charming naivety can also seem, as it does here, a little like arrested development.
And I have to say, the actors don't help. Dane DeHaan stars as Major Valerian, a special-ops agent assigned to maintain order in the universe, or at least in the human territories. It's a big job for this sylph-like manchild and despite numerous feats of derring-do, never once does he seem remotely up to the task. DeHaan can act: Check him out in Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines and Kill Your Darlings. But here, he's mostly asked to joke and flirt until stuntmen take over for the dangerous stuff.
But if it's hard to root for Valerian, it's even harder to muster up interest in his partner, Sergeant Laureline. As played by model Cara Delevingne with a smirk that just won't quit, Laureline is way ballsier than Valerian, who still looks in need of a mother's love. She can pose and preen like an expert in her space gear – and those eyebrows! – but there's no there there. In place of characters we get attitudes. Sorry, that just doesn't cut it.
So with two black holes where our daredevil lovers should be, Besson is left pushing the spectacle, an area that puts him on solid ground. The fillmaker has created a whole new world of creatures that delight the eye as his duo zip around Alpha, the City (all together now) of a Thousand Planets where species from all over the universe gather like a United Nations of space invaders to talk peace.
Still, there's no peace for Valerian and Laureline until they rescue Commander Arün (Clive Owen, looking really, really uncomfortable ), who's been kidnapped by endangered aliens who appear to have flown in from Avatar, and ... sorry, recounting the drag-ass plot is putting me to sleep. Anyway, it's merely a platform for guest appearances by famous actors who should know better. Ethan Hawke plays a pimp named Jolly, an excuse for the director to indulge his taste for kinky intergalactic sex games, though he even seem timid about getting his freak on here. (You expect batshit crazy from Besson but you won't get nearly enough of it this time.) The only bright spot here is Rihanna, playing a shapeshifting stripper named Bubble who does a kind of music-video dance-off that brings the film to life for a few startling minutes. Hollywood hasn't done right by #Riri – first Battleship, then Annie and now this – but she has something this movie desperately needs: star quality.
All that's left, really, is dazzling production design and 3D that admittedly serves the movie instead of substituting gimmicky murk for thrills. Is there a message that Besson is eager to get out? The man has a tin ear for dialogue, but he also has a vision, and someone has given him a $200 million budget to fulfill it. We do know his plot involves a search for a precious pearl. And for the first 20 minutes or so, Valerian is a jewel-like representation of everything you want a Luc Besson movie to be. Then the pearl goes back in the oyster. And everyone is left wondering, what the hell just happened?