Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (STX Entertainment, PG-13)

Its story may be all over the place, but there’s so much ambition, visual splendor and heart in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that more than compensates. This is a colorful breath of fresh air.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets takes place in the far future and is based on the French comics series Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Denizens of over a thousand planets have come together to form Alpha, a giant space station and metropolis where cultures and resources are shared. Alpha is run and protected by a larger government, and two of its agents, lovers Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are entrusted with finding an item native to an extinct planet. However, finding that item puts them in the middle of a much bigger conspiracy that threatens both them and the universe as a whole.

I feel that description of the story is too simple for the amount of times this film jumps from one setting, character and story beat to another at a breakneck pace. In a film full of amazing highs and ambition, the story sometimes becomes too big for its own good. There are a couple of characters in this film played by big names who do not clock more than 10 minutes of screen time each. There are many interesting concepts and takes on the sci-fi genre, but they are not fully explored or sometimes explained due to the film’s speedy pace. The story is not the strong point.

But despite the jumpy narrative, the film is still effective as a whole. There’s no one in the business quite as delightfully bonkers as director Luc Besson. The universe he has created here, with massive help from Industrial Light & Magic, is so innately detailed and uniquely designed that it threatens to rival the vast expanse of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. This is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible and in 3D. Lush and radiant colors, breathtakingly realized extraterrestrial life and seamlessly blended CG worlds fill every frame of the film. This is a film that knows how to uses every single penny of its massive budget. However, the same could be said about other blockbusters this year like Transformers: The Last Knight and The Mummy, and those effects-driven films are unmemorable at best. What truly makes these effects stand out far more effectively is that there is a heartbeat echoing through every creative decision. You are getting a look into Besson’s imagination, and there is a feeling that each little detail has been figured out with giddy excitement. Mix in a sweeping score from Alexandre Desplat and brilliant cinematography from Besson mainstay Thierry Arbogast and you’ve got a feast for the eyes.

What helps the film along is the game cast. Dane DeHaan may not be at his most charismatic, but he is still a terrific actor and can always deliver great work with whatever material he is given. Rihanna makes the most of her role as a shape-shifter with dreams of being a performer, and she has a scene that will be a huge hit for filmgoers. Ethan Hawke is memorably kooky as an otherworldly procurer. Clive Owen, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer and Herbie Hancock do their best in their relatively small roles.

The real standout amongst the cast is Cara Delevingne, who always had a presence but was still finding her voice as an actress. Not only is her presence radiant, she portrays a character with an edge. She is always one step ahead and even the smartest person in the room. This is Delevingne’s best performance, and I am excited to see what she does next.

This is a film that is definitely out there both in story and visuals. It has all the sensibilities of Besson’s earlier works, most notably The Fifth Element, and it makes no attempt to conform to blockbuster conventions. How well you react to this film will depend on how much you enjoy Besson as a director. For me, he has made a big, colorful universe that is cinematic in the best way.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets shows that blockbusters can be at their best when they go all out in terms of ambition. Despite being based on a series, the film feels novel in so many ways. | Bill Loellke

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