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Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne carry out a desert mission in "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets."

Like Steven Spielberg, Luc Besson uses the latest in technology to breathe life into the comic books that fired his youthful imagination. His latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is recognizably by the same director who made The Fifth Element 20 years ago, reveling in his ability to create worlds that never were, and using special effects he couldn’t have imagined in 1997. This science-fiction epic gives us all sorts of cool things to look at, from oceanic sub-worlds full of marine creatures to Great Wall of China-sized circuit boards tended by floating robots, but it’s one star turn that outshines them all.

After a skillful opening credit sequence depicting the International Space Station growing and evolving over centuries into Alpha, a free-floating commercial hub of human and alien races, the movie introduces us to Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), undercover agents for the intergalactic government who are partners in the field and sometimes in bed as well. Upon returning to Alpha, their commander (Clive Owen) gives them a new mission: Take control of his personal security during a sensitive strategy meeting about the mysterious radioactive dead zone that has appeared at Alpha’s heart. His concerns are proven right when terrorists strike the meeting and kidnap him.

This is loosely based on the series of French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières that ran from 1967 to 2010. Besson translates their extravagant visual imagination excellently to the screen; besides the wealth of imaginary locations that we see, the director has his characters use a whole array of nonlethal weaponry and doesn’t show us what the weapons do until the moment they’re used. The film is spiced with all manner of bizarre cameos: Ethan Hawke as a nose-pierced pimp, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock as a defense minister, a small army of French film directors. In addition, the wildlife here includes giant underwater behemoths and a spiky creature the size of a small dog that replicates pearls — not since Avatar has a movie given cryptozoologists so much to chew over.

Unfortunately, this movie carries a lot of Avatar’s flaws, too. Terrible dialogue and dumb plot developments are to be expected from Besson at this point, but his treatment of the race of bald, glowy-skinned, tropical-dwelling aliens who are behind the plot is unsophisticated enough to make James Cameron look like a post-colonial studies professor by comparison. This movie’s moral message boils down to “Genocide is bad.” Besson’s sexual politics are stuck in the 1990s, too; his handling of the shape-shifting dancing slave (Rihanna) who helps Valerian and Laureline’s mission can be charitably called insensitive. Laureline herself constantly gets squeezed into revealing outfits, and why is she only a sergeant while Valerian, who’s no more capable than her, is a major? Come to think of it, why isn’t Laureline’s name in this movie’s title, like it was in the comic books? I’m calling both 21st- and 26th-century sexism here.

Besson is lucky that his lifelong obsession with casting tall, statuesque actresses pays off so handsomely here. Delevingne is an electrifying screen presence who can deliver a spinning roundhouse kick and a sarcastic quip with equal ease. Better still, she’s able to filter all her emotions through her character’s professional cool, whether Laureline is losing radio contact with a mortally endangered Valerian or placing a giant mind-reading space jellyfish on top of her head. She easily swamps DeHaan (a terrific actor who lacks the character’s raffish charm), so that when Valerian proposes to Laureline early in the film, you can’t help but think that she can do better. This former fashion model’s performance has everything you could want. If she picks better projects than Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Delevingne will be a star, which would be a nice legacy for this junky but eye-opening comic space opera to leave.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. Written and directed by Luc Besson, based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic books. Rated PG-13.

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