Without doubt, Writer/Director Luc Besson is a very talented artist. He’s brought us some memorable and entertaining films including La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, and Léon: The Professional. However there seems to be a negative correlation between the size of the budget and the quality of his screenplay. With this is mind it’s been disconcerting that promotions for “Valerian” have been bragging that it’s the most expensive film ever made in France…
Lightly based on the sixth volume in the “Valerian and Laureline” graphic novel series, the film starts clever enough. A montage beginning in 1975 and spanning well over 500 years shows the first of Earth’s space stations slowly growing in size until alien races begin taking notice and adding their own modules. Eventually this “City of a Thousand Planets” becomes too massive for an Earth Orbit and it is sent out into the cosmos. It’s a great intro, but completely destroys my ongoing theory that the opening credits of a movie are a good indicator of the overall quality of the film. The narrative jumps 400 years into the future and the origins of the this massive space city have virtually no relevance to the rest of the movie.
The plot may have been fresh when the graphic novel was first published in 1975, but it’s tired and predictable by today’s standards. There’s a mass extinction of a planet, an (unlikely) coverup, and deadly attempts to keep this secret hidden. Everything about how the coverup is attempted, who is doing what, and the resolution itself is rather silly. Worse yet, even though we are a few steps ahead of our heroes throughout the film, we’re still subjected to long winded spoken exposition scenes, which become increasingly worse as the story reaches it’s climax. It’s like the talking-villain-trope, only everyone does it!
All of this may have been excusable if the script and dialog wasn’t so painfully awful. Valerian(Dane DeHaan) doesn’t speak so much as he recited cliches. And these aren’t clever self-referential cliches, these are the ones that are so old and tired that they exist only as a boring sequence of words that we are familiar with. Sidekick(?) Laureline (Cara Delevingne) fares slightly better, but suffers from awkward transitions between Empowered Female and Sex Object. Luc Besson has repeatedly stated that this film has been a life-long project and that he is a huge fan of the source material. If that’s the case, how could he get the dynamic between Valerian and Laureline so painfully wrong? In the old novels there was respect, admiration and love between them. Not only do DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry together, but their relationship as written is highly dysfunctional at best. There opening scene is an accurate precursor of what to expect. Laureline lightly flirts with Valerian (her superior officer) and he proceeds to pin her down against her will while making romantic sexual advances on her that she repeatedly rejects. Within the next twenty minutes, he ups the ante to marriage proposal! This is essentially sexual harassment in the guise of flirting. Luc Besson is obviously shooting for a StarLord/Han Solo ethos for Valerian, but misses the mark completely as DeHaan projects a “boring asshole” vibe.
Let’s not end on such negative notes. The film is not a total waste. The art-direction is absolutely wonderful and incredibly creative. Some elements from the source material have been accurately brought to life on screen, but the vast majority is fresh and new. The various costumes and sets are full of detail and a joy to behold. The movie itself even has fleeting moments of awesomeness. One unexpected pleasure is Rihanna’s dance scene. What seems like a shameless cameo plug is actually a brilliant and impressive mix of performance and special effects. Sadly, her character quickly degrades into a disposable bit of comic relief that doesn’t elicit any laughter.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” may entertain children, and has plenty of eye candy, but falls far short of its potential. Once again, a “fan” filmmaker misunderstands the source material they claim to revere. It’s not the spectacle that matters, it’s the story.