Sometimes I wish we could just crack Luc Besson’s head open and get a look at the movie inside. The films that make it to the screen, I suspect, are faint copies of that overripe, over-produced, joyously ridiculous Busby-Berkeley-on-French-peyote extravaganza that must be continuously projected on the IMAX screen at the back of his brain.
Making movies is a task cramped by compromise and crowds; they never turn out the way you want. So imagine what “The Fifth Element” or “Betty Blue” or “Lucy” or “La Femme Nikita” must have looked like before they were actually filmed.
With “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” we may be getting close to the Ur-Besson flick. The movie’s wonderful, dopey high-summer space nonsense, based on a French comic book series that ran approximately forever (OK, from 1967 to 2010) and that allows the writer-director to match his fizzing visual sensibility to the source’s camp (but not really) “Flash Gordon” sci-fi head-trip. Of course it’s in 3-D.
The opening 15 minutes alone deserve enshrinement: a merry frog-march through several centuries of human advancement — during which a space station named Alpha grows so immense with colonists from Earth and elsewhere that it gets spun off as its own city-planet — followed by some downtime on Mül, a planet that looks like the beach getaway of your acid-tinged dreams. The visuals are day-glo, slightly and endearingly chintzy, and the inhabitants resemble Zen sylphs. It’s like Teletubbies for grown-ups.
Unfortunately, little of the remaining movie matches that first-contact high. The Valerian of the title is a wisecracking, arrogant interstellar agent, abetted and tolerated by his comely fellow agent Laureline; the movie’s plot has the two rocketing around the universe while solving a dastardly conspiracy and saving the Mülians.
All well and good except for the casting. Dane DeHaan, an excellent young actor (“Kill Your Darlings”) with a Satanic glimmer in his eye, is no one’s idea of a derring-do hero, not even his own, it seems — the performance is flat and unengaged. As Laureline, Cara Delevingne is a dud, unable to pitch Besson’s wan sardonic-romantic banter with any sort of curve. These two are the leads, and yet their scenes feel distressingly rote, a concession to cliché rather than a riff on it.
The best scenes in this overlong confabulation? Anytime Besson simply gets his interstellar freak on. The secondary casting is entertainingly demented: jazz great Herbie Hancock as the government’s top minister? Sure, why not? Pop music empress Rihanna as a shape-shifting courtesan who helps the hero out of a space-jam? Fine and dandy, other than the ultimately insulting secondary role the singer is forced to play. (Blondes in this movie definitely have more fun.)
Also worth the price of admission are some of the ideas and characters whipping around “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” such as an immense shopping-mall city that exists in a parallel dimension (you visit it with holo-helmets), or a cute little critter that poops out endless copies of anything it’s fed (diamonds, say), or the amusingly ratty alien triplets who sell the heroes information, or the big, bug-eyed bazoos who “fish” for humans.
In short, Besson builds a dazzling alterna-universe — a bit of Terry Gilliam, a dash of “Blade Runner,” a smidgen of “Star Wars” (which, to be fair, was probably influenced by the original comic), and a lot of extra-strength Besson-ian whimsy. And then he strands us with the two least interesting people there.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Written and directed by Luc Besson, based on a comic book by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Starring Dan DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Rihanna, Clive Owen. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 137 minutes. PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material, brief language).