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A celestial montage unfurls in the opening sequence of Luc Besson’s new science fiction opus, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. As David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays, an orbiting station grows larger and more unwieldy, with ships docking and adding incongruous wings to a sprawling satellite settlement. Eventually, the station swells to such Brobdingnagian proportions that it threatens to come crashing down and destroy the very thing that begat it, Earth.
You don’t need special glasses to see this as a metaphor for the French filmmaker’s long-gestating spectacular, which opens on July 21 after seven years of writing, 100 days of shooting, and 20 months in postproduction at some of the world’s top special effects houses, Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and WETA Digital, best known for work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.
With a budget of $180 million—though it’s technically only $150 million after French subsidies—Valerian isn’t only the costliest project in Besson’s three-decade-long directorial career, it’s also the most expensive movie produced in Europe and the most expensive independent feature film made anywhere. Although Besson has used equity financing and foreign sales to minimize the financial exposure for EuropaCorp, his production company, which funded most of the project, he’s still wagering its reputation and his own to test the heady notion that a Hollywood blockbuster can be an import, not export, product.
The odds of success would seem to be as long as those of the director’s young protagonists in their improbable quest to save the universe. The Valérian et Laureline comic book source material is virtually unknown outside France. The film, which Besson rewrote top to bottom after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, was shot and is intended to be seen in 3D. And both of its stars are unproven: Dane DeHaan, who plays Valerian, has done mostly dark, brooding roles, and his most recent effort, A Cure for Wellness, bombed; Cara Delevingne, as his partner, Laureline, is a model whose biggest role before this was as the Enchantress in Suicide Squad, last summer’s epic bust.
But the director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and Lucy and the writer-producer of The Transporter and Taken movie franchises has been obsessed with Valérian et Laureline since he first read the comics as a 10-year-old boy. Besson has gone deep into space before: Valerian arrives exactly two decades after his influential sci-fi opera The Fifth Element. “Twenty years ago, I was [considered] weird,” he said at Comic-Con in 2016. “And 20 years later, the world has gotten as weird as me.”
That weirdness—the outlandish costumes and kaleidoscopic visual effects—is in overdrive here. Spurred by the world-building he saw in Avatar, Besson shot the whole thing in 3D, with 80 VFX artists, and created more than 2,700 special effects shots. (The Fifth Element had about 200.) Almost all of them are dazzling, including an idyllic beach planet populated by improbably lithe, fashionable aliens called Pearls; an underwater marine kingdom; and a red-light district in Alpha, the space station-turned metropolis where Valerian and Laureline have been sent to investigate.
Besson’s overindulgences are less forgivable in his casting choices. Although DeHaan and Delevingne exude youth and the breezy nonchalance that comes with it, they are questionable choices at best for a film of this scale. Jazz great Herbie Hancock shows up as the duo’s no-nonsense military leader. By the time Rihanna appears as a mighty-morphing pole dancer named Bubble, it starts to feel like a desperate bid for social media relevance.
The Hollywood studio system exists to weed out, or at least curb, this sort of directorial excess, which is why astronomically priced passion projects are rare and truly creative commercial films are rarer still. Valerian is both—an outlier in a season of superhero spinoffs, reboots, and ripoffs.
Yet it’s a fatally flawed film. What trips it up more than questionable casting or even stunted dialogue is the epically confused narrative. The screenplay careens through space and runs into an asteroid field of heavy-handed themes: galactic multilateralism and multiculturalism vs. human exceptionalism and a not-so-muted cri de coeur about environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples.
It’s easy to forget, but The Fifth Element was a bust when it made its debut in 1997. The movie eventually overcame its initially poor showing at the box office to earn $264 million (its budget was $90 million) and, thanks to a cult following, has become a sci-fi classic. It’s possible Valerian will have a similar slow-burn effect. Certainly, its visual effects will warrant repeat viewings, and maybe Delevingne can fill the charismatic role that Milla Jovovich, another unproven actress at the time, did 20 years ago.
It’s hard to root against a film that cynical Hollywood studio heads are so eager to see fail, but let’s hope for Besson’s sake that Valerian goes quietly. He’s hinted at an urge to mine the surplus of source material to create a franchise. He’d be better served doing what the preservation-minded people of Earth do with the space city that was mushrooming out of control: Shoot it off into deep space and let it go.