In 1997's The Fifth Element, director Luc Besson's masterpiece of a sci-fi mess, or perhaps mess of a sci-fi masterpiece, a good third of the film is devoted to Chris Tucker's comic-relief character Ruby Rhod screaming his head off. It sounds like a nightmare, but the unhinged performance combined with Besson's equally unhinged aesthetic sensibilities quickly turn a bad idea into a hypnotic one. You learn to live with the mania, even love it. It's all so gloriously unsettling.
The entire 137 minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson's latest sci-fi whatchamacallit and his first return to the genre since Element, is The Ruby Rhod Show writ large. This is a movie that will make you scream – in confusion, in delight, in anger, in ecstasy. Sometimes all at once.
The beginning is innocuous enough, in that it is absolutely bonkers. As David Bowie sings of floating in a tin can, Besson smashes together approximately 800 years of space exploration, a succession of first contacts between humanity and various aliens that is as delicate as it is dizzying. As the film adds more and more outer-space species into its mix, each greeted by a different earthly representative (and each played by a different French compatriot of Besson's, including directors Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton), the effect is delightful, even joyous. With no dialogue but the universal language of a handshake, Besson creates a genuine jolt of emotion that threatens to burst your heart.
And then Rutger Hauer shows up as the President of Earth and it seems like the skies have simply opened up – you're dead now and in heaven and everything is right with the galaxy. Amen.
After those first four minutes, things get dicier. Besson adapted Valerian from an iconic series of French comics by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, a widely influential work that dominated his youth. But with that early-years attachment comes a narrative that feels just as adolescent – the characters are never defined beyond archetype, the drama is undercooked, and the stakes are so impossibly high that they hardly seem worth worrying about. Cue the Ruby Rhod screams.
There are some deliciously high points, though, even if most of the story and all of the bananas set design revolve around a cocky and deathly dull government agent named Valerian (Dane DeHaan, aiming for Fifth Element Bruce Willis but only getting A Good Day to Die Hard Bruce Willis). In typical mission-movie fashion, he's tasked with retrieving a pointless MacGuffin that's bouncing around Alpha, a massive floating space station where most of the galaxy congregates. Along for the ride is Valerian's partner in action and romance, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and here is where Besson makes a crucial error in judgment.
Although Valerian is designed to be the star of the show (that's his name in the title, even though the original comic was called Valerian and Laureline), he's a bore at best and an abhorrent cad at worst, a 28th-century mansplainer who DeHaan further drags down with the unintentional odiousness of your least favourite ex-boyfriend.
Laureline, though, proves to be a strong and engaging presence throughout, even when the movie tries to sideline her. We can thank Delevingne for pushing back against all of Besson's worst instincts, her performance so charming and natural that you wonder just who committed identity theft when her name appeared in such wrecks as Suicide Squad and Paper Towns.
Perhaps to subconsciously compensate for his overreliance on DeHaan and his underusage of Delevingne, Besson pulls off the greatest casting coup of the year by snagging Rihanna. As Bubble, a shape-shifting sex worker who assists Valerian in a rescue mission but mostly exists to showcase the performer's scorching screen presence, Rihanna owns however precious few minutes the movie affords her. As she rotates through a series of fetishistic cosplay scenarios faster than most teenagers can flick through the NSFW site of your choosing, the musician electrifies what is already a dangerously overcharged production.
As The Fifth Element (and Leon, and the last 20 minutes of Lucy) proves, Besson works best with such overstimulated environs. Most of Valerian doesn't sit right in terms of story or character, but it is massively entertaining to behold. As Besson piles on his fever dreams – a multitiered hawker market accessible only via a different temporal reality, telepathic jellyfish that live on top of huge dinosaur-like whales, a vaguely racist detour to an extraterrestrial feast – Valerian roils and crashes and thrashes with mad energy.
The film seems too large to simply live in the headspace most humans are afforded. It is bigger, louder and more than any one man can comprehend. Even Ruby Rhod.