’Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ Is a Messy Space Romp

Based on a French comic series, the old-school space adventure “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” takes place in the 28th century, focusing on the titular Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Lauraline (Cara Delevigne), agents for the human delegation of Alpha (aka the city of a thousand planets). Alpha started off as the International Space Station but has grown into a humungous structure housing millions of people and species from across the galaxy. Valerian and Lauraline are tasked with a mission that takes them into the depths of that structure to uncover a mysterious threat that could end the relative harmonious co-existence on Alpha.

That mystery is often sidelined for wild chases through alien worlds. The first part of the mission Valerian and Lauraline venture on takes place in a multi-dimensional market that looks like a plain desert landscape until you put on special glasses, revealing a sprawling series of multi layered shops and stalls, mixing wooden structures and neon HUD displays. Another takes Valerian on a side quest to save Lauraline from the underbelly of Alpha, complete with a sword fight and escape through a trash chute in what feels like a nod to “Star Wars: A New Hope.” These chases do slow the pace a bit but are so fun and populated with weird moments, it’s worth the pause.

Cara Delevigne shows a definite growth from her turn in “Suicide Squad”, but there is still room for improvement. At least here, she seems to be having genuine fun and has a bit more to do as a character alongside Dane DeHaan’s Valerian. As a hero, DeHaan is surprisingly stiff. Valerian is meant to come off sarcastic and quippy, but DeHaan has a rather flat delivery throughout the film. Considering all the other excitement going on, he seems a little lost. There was also a clear attempt to give Delevigne and DeHaan’s agents a “His Girl Friday” vibe, but it falls a little flat as they lack romantic chemistry. His repeated requests for Lauraline to marry him just never click as charming, but scenes where they concentrate on the mission as a friendly team seem to work better.

Rihanna also has an extended cameo as shape shifting alien Bubble. When we meet her, she switches from sexy guise to sexy guise, before ultimately revealing herself as a blobby, purple jellyfish-like being who just wants to be a proper actress. It’s a little strange for her to be commenting on performance and acting so much in the role, when maybe she’s not quite there herself. Again, like Delevigne, she’s not terrible, but there’s room to improve.

The classic style of space adventure works over all, but one element failed to bring any fun to the proceedings, and that was the lack of female characters and frequent sidelining of Lauraline. There are multiple scenes where she is forced to stay behind on the mission, not just by other authority figures, but Valerian himself. There’s something painful about seeing a woman being shut out of a meeting room full of men in the supposedly advanced civilization on Alpha. It’s clear she’s tough and capable, so it makes little sense to exclude her. It’s also a downer that the only other female characters are Rihanna’s shapeshifting pleasure worker and a nameless assistant in the human headquarters.

But, visually, the movie can’t be beat. Each alien species is unique and beautifully rendered. From a lost civilization of pearlescent, tribal inspired mermaid-like creatures to grotesque giants with a taste for human brains, every frame is packed with a different alien to discover. The multi-dimensional market mentioned earlier is a great trip, as is seeing all the elements that make up Alpha. Perhaps the strangest alien creature of all is a small critter called a duplicator that when fed a small item can expel hundreds of copies of that item. It’s an awkward plot device, made more awkward by the fact that when it expels the copies, it looks a little like defecation.

Overall, this is a fairly family-friendly space adventure and even cartoonish in a sense with all the chases, aliens and intergalactic silliness. Younger viewers will enjoy the goofy creatures, and adults will enjoy the throwback aspect of two people running around a galaxy trying to solve a mystery.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” opens in theaters July 21.