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'Valerian' is a terrible movie that is visually stunning

It's called "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." It's a terrible movie that has a stunning visual triumph attached.

Let me nail that down: The first hour is puerile and awful while simultaneously being glorious to look at in its visionary futurism. After that, things do improve. Once Ethan Hawke shows up as the sleazeball proprietor of an interplanetary strip club and Rihanna shows up as his star attraction, everything that follows could actually be called a movie.

Not a good one, you understand, but watchable anyway.

It's from Luc Besson, the cult-pleasing French director whom, I'm afraid, I will always give the benefit of the doubt. He's just made me too happy in the past to automatically consign anything of his to the rubbish heap.

In "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," the intergalactic city of Alpha is an ever-expanding metropolis comprised of thousands of different species from all corners of the universe. This sort of visual spectacle is the movie's strong suit. (STX Entertainment)

Here, after all, is the fellow who gave us "La Femme Nikita," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," "The Fifth Element" and Natalie Portman as the beautiful baby assassin with heroically ugly Jean Reno in "The Professional." One of the earliest and best Scarlett Johansson butt-kicking movies was Besson's "Lucy." At that movie, I swear, an enraptured patron was so happy in the parking lot afterward that I saw him and his wife dancing wildly on the way to their car. I felt a bit the way he did, but I had to write a review. I didn't have time to dawdle dancing.

I blame George Lucas for "Valerian," which is kind of a visually ambitious "Star Wars" knock-off. In its combination of awful storytelling, worse dialogue and amazing things to look at, it is bad enough to make Lucas happy while passing as a visionary film for adults. It may actually please those adults who don't have much loyalty to maturity.

Dane Dehaan – a sort of would-be Keanu Reeves – and Cara Delevingne star as interplanetary future cops who fly around keeping things orderly in an angry and armed universe. There's trouble in Alpha, though, which is the "City of a Thousand Planets" of the title. In other words, it's a city full of aliens from everywhere bringing their cultures with them to enrich the universe.

Clive Owen plays a nasty cop planetist who, in the modern style, hates the very idea of that. He makes a lot of trouble for the people of the planet Ur who, in their elongated near-nakedness resemble nothing so much as Mati Klarwen's people on the covers of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" and "Live-Evil." And if you think I'm dragging that reference in from left field, fuggedabout it. The great pianist and Davis sideman Herbie Hancock is an actor, no less, in this movie playing a minister of something or other who gives Valerian his marching orders. Don't tell me Besson isn't a not-so-secret Davis fan.

Rihanna's shape-shifting dance is wretched fun and so is some of what follows it as the movie hastily invents a plot to give it more reasons to exist than amazing visuals. The audience is thereby kept from engaging in armed revolt. But it's no one's idea of an edifying way to spend 137 minutes.

On the other hand, if you, like some of us, are partial to movies that allow production designers and computer graphics geniuses go a little nuts, you'll tolerate "Valerian."

If you expect to dance wildly with your spouse in the parking lot afterward, there's probably something wrong with your diet. A bit too much sugar perhaps?


2 stars (out of four)

Starring Dane Dehaan, Cara Delevingne, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen and Herbie Hancock. Directed by Luc Besson. 137 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.

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