Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne star in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Vikram Gounassegarin)

Writer-Director Luc Besson new film, the most expensive independent film ever made (with a budget anywhere between $150–200 million), could have been a great success story. However, fans of Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element who are hoping Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will be anywhere near as fun and campy as his earlier sci-fi romp are in for a letdown. Besson sets up a beautiful preamble, but the action-adventure story becomes convoluted very quickly, and the film never really finds its soul.

Not to say the film isn’t a spectacle. There are plenty of cool sci-fi ideas to praise. The City of a Thousand Planets, which is quite the noggin-scratcher of a name, is actually the International Space Station that began assemblage in 1998. Now 700 years into the future, alien species have come aboard and attached their own modules until the station has a population of some 30 million inhabitants. That concept alone is worthy of deeper exploration, only it gets reduced to a colorful backdrop for fights and chases.

Then we are introduced to a species of humanlike creatures that live on a planet called Mül that is mostly covered in water, and with ample sunlight, everyone lives on beachfront real estate. These beings derive their energy from mystical pearls that come from the planet. In fact, the population may even have evolved from the pearls. The planet and civilization is then destroyed when it gets caught in the crosshairs of a massive space battle it had no part in.

Meanwhile Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) zip around the universe on random orders to carry out specialized assignments. Why these two are so unique to have a gigantic star ship all to themselves, and what exactly their specialties are, is never really explained. They both seem way too young to be as accomplished as they are supposed to be. Not to mention that being stuck together gives Valerian all the time he wants to hit on Laureline relentlessly.

Their first mission leads them to an all-desert planet (why are these space operas always set on desert planets?), where there is tourist attraction called “Big Market,” which is actually in another dimension, so shoppers have to wear special dimension-crossing visors to visit the flea market of a million shops. There the duo breaks up an illegal trade for the last specimen of a lizard species that lived on planet Mül, one vital to the resurrection of the civilization that was destroyed.

Predictably, the mission doesn’t go as planned, and Valerian, Laureline, and their expendable SEAL teamlike subordinates undergo a long-winded, chaotic action sequence that takes place simultaneously in two dimensions. Their next orders take them to the titular space station. They are assigned as bodyguards to Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who has to attend a meeting of a United Nations–type security council regarding an area at the center of the city that has gone radioactive. Commander Filitt is also dead-set on obtaining the lizard specimen from Valerian and Laureline, but they won’t let him have it because in the 28th century, it’s totally legit to go against your commanding officer’s orders.

The dumb keeps on coming. The film is full of needless detours, such as Valerian getting lost somewhere in the bowels of the city, Laureline getting kidnapped by a species that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, Valerian’s trip into the city’s blue-light district, and the least provocative burlesque dance number in the history of film pulled off by none other than Rihanna.

This film would have been a lot cooler had it been made 10 or even 20 years ago. Supposedly Besson has been trying to get it off the ground for a while, but after he saw Avatar, he scrapped his screenplay and started on a new one. (He must not have revised too hard, as the pearl people of Mül are basically beach versions of Avatar’s Na’vi.) As it is, Valerian is totally needless in today’s world, and its sexual politics are antiquated. The story arc of the protagonists is whether Laureline will say yes to Valerian’s marriage proposal or if Valerian is ready for commitment. The one aspect of the film edging on relevance is the inclusion of the pearl people, who are gender ambiguous. (The ruler calls his partner his “wife,” and both are voiced by female actors.) That aspect comes as a jarring juxtaposition next to the otherwise trite romance plot.

While Dane DeHaan has done some impressive work in the past (he was a highlight of the HBO series In Treatment), he just isn’t a leading man for this material. Valerian in the original comic book was written and drawn as a hunk of a space dude. Here he is a scrawny man-boy hipster. Cara Delevingne, whose breakout role was in Paper Towns, never really rises to become the action heroine we’ve grown to expect from the genre these days (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Wonder Woman). In the film’s climax, she has to give a run-on speech, reminiscent of Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis’s rousing moment at the end of The Fifth Element. The difference is: Valerian and Laureline have spent so much of the past 137 minutes running around that they have never stopped to make us care about what happens.

Written and Directed by Luc Besson, based on the comic book series Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres
Released by STX Films
France. 137 min. Rated PG-13
With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rhianna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, and Rutger Hauer