I don't just mean that it's silly, it is and deliberately so, I think. I mean it's absurd in almost the sense Lewis Carroll's work is absurd. Nothing is explained, things happen and you can either roll with it or try to understand it and drive yourself insane.
The comparisons to Luc Besson's previous work on the 5th Element are inevitable and deserved. The writing is marginally better than the 5th Element, the casting is mostly worse due to the horrible decision to give a job to Dale DeHaan, who combined Keanu Reeve's line delivery with the babyish body and face of 1990's Leonardo DiCaprio. Seriously, Tom Holland portraying a 15 YEAR OLD BOY is more masculine.
Both movies present a fully realized, lived-in world. Both are visually stunning. Both seem to have been translated from French with some vital Gaullic logic not making the leap. But let's do a quick overview of what we're dealing with here.
Valerian (Dale 'duhhh' DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are 'agents' of the Earth Federal government. They are also seemingly military, with Valerian given the rank of Major and Laureline addressed as Sergeant occasionally. Maybe that makes sense in France, but not in the US.
But the movie actually starts with two prologues. The first is a wordless exposition about Earth uniting and making first contact. The second is a gorgeous scene of sexy androgynous aliens living on a beach, collecting pearls and feeding them to little kitty/lizards which....shit out dozens of duplicate of whatever it's fed. This legitimately idyllic life is shattered when spaceships fall out of the sky. Not land, but fall. Impacting. The natives go poking around inside one of the fallen ships. Finally a really, really big, moon-sized spaceship falls and destroys the planet, including the space princess we've been following in this prologue.
Cut to Valerian and Laureline flirting on a virtual beach, which involves some light hand to hand combat (played flirtatiously, not aggressively) and a marriage proposal. Now we have no idea who these characters are and this is how we're introduced to them. Maybe a better actor and actress could have sold this premise. Maybe. But I doubt it. I realize that for some in Europe, Valerian is an established comicbook character, but billions of people don't know that.
They go to a legitimately fascinating virtual market in their A.I. -controlled spaceship, meet with some military folks in funny hats and go to....recover some stolen property. Which turns out to be one of the kitty/lizard things from the prologue. Action ensues, they bring the titular 'City of a Thousand Planets', a constantly-growing space station that started in Earth orbit but now drifts through space as a sort of UN mixed with a great trading hub populated by a thousand alien races, including humans.
Once there, Valerian and Laureline meet a shady military commander, some less-shady military officers and end up as bodyguards to the shady officer. There is a problem on the space station, at the center of it is some supposedly irradiated zone that they can't find out what is inside. But they're pretty sure it's hostile as probes and patrols have been killed investigating.
The sexy natives from the prologues appear with strange force fields and goo guns and kidnap the commander. Valerian and Laureline give chase and have lots of adventures for about an hour of screen time. (Seriously, trying to writing down what happens and in what order would pretty much be like writing the screenplay treatment)
Finally they discover that the shady military commander is being held by the sexy, androgynous, mental prodigy, ethically elevated, compassionate natives of the prologue. The commander orders an attack on the aliens and then one on the soldiers themselves. Laureline emotionally blackmails Valerian into giving the aliens the little kitty/lizard thing so they can finish their homemade spaceship and....make a new planet with it as well. They kill the bad guys, arrest the commander and make out with Laureline possibly accepting the marriage proposal Valerian has been making to her every five minutes of screen time.
The visuals are wonderful. If you are lucky enough to be either mentally impaired enough to turn your brain off, or are aware of who these characters are before the movie was released, you're going to have a great time.
The script has some deftness and moral ambiguity. The native paradise isn't destroyed through malice, but as legitimate collateral damage from a space battle happening overhead. There's no malice in their destruction and there's some possibility that the humans didn't even know they were there. (The natives seem to be able to block sensor probes through their...magic. I can't call it technology but whatever. Magical tech) Likewise the cover up afterwards isn't nice but it makes sense and it isn't a 'military conspiracy', the Earth government, rightly or wrongly, signed off on it. The military itself isn't portrayed as cliched bad guys. This isn't a bad movie....not exactly.
The natives from the prologue feel like 'Avatar done right'. Their society is beautiful but baffling and they seem kind, forgiving, sensual in ways humans should attain to. They are alien but the kind of aliens that actually do feel like they're 'better' than we are. James Cameron had some stupid colonial or corporate axe to grind that ruined Avatar. This movie doesn't fall into a polemical trap. The aliens don't make sense, but they are rather likeable and we feel sorry for them.
Cara Delevingne does a much, much better job in this movie than she did in Suicide Squad. Give her a bikini and a good director and she can do ok. She has bit of the manic pixie girl, kickass martial artist vibe but not too annoyingly. She feels like a real person, to a point.
What didn't work:
Very little is established or set up. What we do get often doesn't make sense. Like the pearls being apparently 50 megatons. So are they bombs? How does it work? How do the natives use them? Have the natives had contact with the outside galactic world or not? In one scene, an alien broker clearly recognizes the pearls and the kitty/lizard thing. But how can that be possible if the planet was destroyed and hadn't had previous contact with the galaxy? Which must be the case since no one recognizes the natives or knows who they are.
That's just one tiny example. Another one is what Valerian and Laureline can do. I mean what gadgets they have and how they can be used. Good or bad, the James Bond movies mostly set up what gadgets he was getting and we could watch him use them. Valerian just seems to randomly...do things or have things. His space suit can let him charge through walls. He has some breathalyzer thing that has a robot inside it with a laser cutter. His gun sometimes freezes people, sometimes seems like a pea shooter. He has some kind of neck communicator but we don't know what it does or who it lets him talk to.
Everything just sort of happens. Like Rhianna being in this. As a stripper/whore. Who's a shapeshifting alien. Who dies, the first and only death Valerian and Laureline seem to care about.
The relationship doesn't work because we don't know these characters, most of us. So Valerian constantly proposing to Laureline makes no sense. I won't go too much into how it's a very bad and very unprofessional thing to want to marry or bang your partners and subordinates, (those of you who are prior service have probably seen first hand just how much of a bad idea that is) but this is beyond a bad idea. It's baffling. I'm not even sure how attracted the two of them are to each other. The opening beach flirting was fine but it's not sustained. And Valerian constantly bringing up the marriage proposal, at random moments, makes him feel more like a stalker than anything else.
Then you have her emotional blackmail at the end of the movie. At the decision point of the film, there are two 'right' answers to the dilemma before them. They can give the kitty/alien thing to the natives so they can power up their spaceship and go to some new world. Or they can give it to their superiors as ordered. They are military...ish. And clearly under authority. But Valerian doesn't give the kitty/lizard to the aliens because it's the right thing to do, no, he does because Laureline says she could never marry him unless he does exactly what she tells him to do. Even though he thinks it's the 'wrong' thing to do. In what fucking part of the world does that make sense?
And this comes right on the heels of Valerian punching out his superior officer AND THEN turning around to say 'he's a soldier and he has to follow orders'. Right after that. The cognitive dissonance made the small audience I saw this with say 'what' and 'huh' out loud. And probably contributed to the cute redhead in the parking lot ranting about how terrible the movie was.
But the biggest problem, apart from the constant confusion about HOW things are happening, is Dale DeHaan. I can't express just how much he ruins this movie with his line delivery and his air of unearned confidence. I don't know how much of this is just me not liking his performance or his face and voice and everything else about him...and how much of it is the writing and direction.
Bruce Willis anchored the 5th Element with a relatable persona. He felt like a guy. A man. Dale DeHaan feels like a pre-teen underwear model....and there's an actual underwear model in the movie acting circles around him!
The cool factor is going to make or break the movie for most viewers. If you find everything in this movie 'cool', (and there is cool stuff here) you're going to like it. If you need things like 'set up' and 'pay off' or 'explanations' or 'logic', then you might have an aneurism.