Friends, I don’t know if this is the single worst film I have ever seen or if I should tell you to quit your job and spend the next week watching it in theaters on loop. I’m leaning toward the latter because, as previously mentioned, there is Rihanna. And, dammit, Rihanna is good.
The first genius move from deranged screenwriter-director Luc Besson (Lucy, The Fifth Element) is to cast the three Hollywood actors who most look like aliens to star in his sci-fi caper/love story/cautionary tale: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, and the aforementioned badgalriri, though it’s only the singing extraterrestrial beauty who actually plays an alien in the film.
DeHaan and Delevingne are commanders Valerian and Laureline, special operatives more than 700 years in the future who are charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories in a now seemingly boundless universe rife with all kinds of species a $180 million special effects budget can provide you.
They have a screwball His Girl Friday-like banter. He’s the Han, brutishly in love with her but kind of a cad; she’s the Leia, exasperated and too intelligent for his shenanigans, but obviously harboring a crush. It’s exhausting—they read so young it’s like teenagers impersonating sexual chemistry for a high school play—and ceaseless as the two become entangled in the film’s convoluted plot.
This plot is abandoned so frequently as the film becomes distracted by its own manifested shiny things—look, there’s Rihanna!—that it’s almost pointless to recap. But, basically, the majestic city of Alpha, a utopian metropolis in which species from across the universe share brainpower and culture for the greater good, is under attack by a sperm-looking alien race seeking revenge on Clive Owen, whose performance is so blustery you’ll need a windbreaker to watch his scenes.
The walking sperm come from a planet that thrived on pearls (or something like that), but was wiped out as collateral damage to human war. The key to regenerating their home is—and you can’t make this up—an adorable creature, some kind of cross between an aardvark, lizard, and kitten, that literally poops pearls. Intergalactic war is nearly waged over this aardvark with calcite-induced IBS.
I understand that Valerian is based on a cherished comic book series, but as events unfold it’s hard to shake the notion that it’s a screenplay concocted by sugar-overdosing 12-year-old boys at a sleepover party. (Besson himself takes full screenplay credit.) Honestly, that’s both its biggest attribute and flaw.
There’s the direct cribbing from the Star Wars films: the requisite adrenaline-pumping aircraft chase, the intergalactic meetings, the Jabba the Hut stand-in, Laureline’s heroine-to-harlot interlude, the corrupt commander, the Han-Leia will-they/won’t-they romance, and a bunch of cute little aliens.
Hell, there’s even a trio of platypus-bat-like swindlers who are played as Three Stooges-esque comic relief, but veer more closely to Jar Jar Binks problematic territory.
Logic is an afterthought, with most action sequences taking on a video game-like convenience in which Valerian magically summons technological tricks, skills, and super powers to get him out of jams.
But where the juvenile scripting is at its peak is in this Rihanna-centric interlude that takes a nonsensical 10-ish minute break from the plot to sexualize the pop star before dismissing her character entirely.
I’m not mad. It is the greatest 10 minutes of cinema this entire summer.
It’s roughly 80 minutes into this acid trip that Rihanna finally arrives, and it will be roughly 80 years before I stop talking about her performance.
She plays Bubble (!) a dancer at a seedy space brothel with the misfortune of being presided over by Ethan Hawke in a cowboy hat after taking too much Adderall. It seems that everyone forgot to tell Rihanna they weren’t going to bother with the whole acting thing in this film, because she goes full Fantine with this role. Anne Hathaway will watch this performance and go, “A bit much, no?” No.
We meet Bubble as she begins to dance for Valerian. She’s in full Fosse drag: the bowler hat, the fishnets, the body-hugging black leotard, and the body rolls while she dances on a chair.
Bubble’s gift, though, is that she’s a shapeshifter, so cue the supercut of Rihanna living out all your pubescent fetishes: sexy nurse, contortionist, stripper, Catholic school girl, French maid, roller girl, Catwoman dominatrix. There’s no reason for the length of this sequence other than to lavish on Rihanna, but seeing as there’s no discernible reason for 65 percent of the happenings in Valerian, we’ll take it.
Don’t be fooled. There’s more to Bubble than sexy dancing. RiRi goes zero to 100 in her first lines of dialogue, crafting her courtesan alien into some sort of desperate Sally Bowles trapped artist: wounded, fighting her instincts to con and turn tricks, an artist whose life circumstances are denying her the opportunity to be the artist she once desperately wanted to be.
“What good is freedom when you’re an illegal immigrant far away from home?” Bubble asks Valerian, in a line reading worth every solitary penny of the film’s monstrous $200 million budget.
Rihanna is to Valerian what Nicole Scherzinger is to the Dirty Dancing remake. (I only talk about icons here at The Daily Beast.)
She brings gusto, grit, and gravitas to a project that is otherwise a farce. She’s wrings spitfire energy, regret, hope, and, ultimately, doom out of basically two scenes, mostly done in motion capture. She performs like someone told her to “go big or go home” but she just found out her home is on fire and there isn’t any-damn-where to go back to.
This is going to be a minor spoiler, but it’s hardly going to ruin things for you: They give our girl a death scene with some real hokey-ass, ham-fisted dialogue. Rihanna doesn’t care. “It was my pleasure performing for you,” she says, her “Rosebud.” The pleasure was ours, Rihanna. I say: “Oscar.”
Rihanna’s limited acting career has been marked by extreme oddness and full commitment. Why was Rihanna in Battleship? Who knows, but she was redefined the word “self-serious” in an effort to prove her stunt casting wasn’t just a stunt. (It was a stunt.) And her #PeakTV guest star debut? In, of all things, Bates Motel, in the role Janet Leigh played in Psycho. Once your visceral “WTF?” subsides, she’s great in it.
Rihanna’s fleeting turn as a shapeshifting alien sex worker isn’t the only good thing about Valerian, of course. To call the visuals dazzling would be an understatement, and Besson is masterful in his use of 3D. There are action set pieces that are truly thrilling, especially one at a market that exists in alternate dimensions in the first act. And I will not rest until I have a pooping aardvark cat of my own.
Sure, the dialogue in the last act is so corny that audiences actually laughed. Sure, there are more holes in the plot than there are in my Tastee D-Lite punch card. But in the end, this out-of-its-mind film is a whole lot of fun to watch, which is more than anyone can say about most. (I’ve never hooted louder than when one of those sperm aliens held Dane DeHaan’s face in their hands and said, with utmost seriousness, “My daughter.”)
Who are we kidding, though? It’s all about Rihanna. It always is.