I’m not familiar with the French comic this film is based on (Valérian and Laureline) but I am acquainted with director Luc Besson’s previous works. The Fifth Element, Lucy, The Professional, The Messenger—all of these and more are highly stylized films that often fall short on substance. Valerian is no different.
The film isn’t without its charms. Valerian is easily the best eye candy I’ve seen in the theater this year. Hell, since Avatar. There is literally so much to see in this film that one cannot possibly manage it in one viewing. But mere spectacle doesn’t make a story. There is a decent plot embedded amidst all the CGI wonders but it unfolds in convoluted fashion. What hobbles the film most is the wooden acting and poor dialogue, especially from the two leads (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne). There was zero chemistry between them, zero sexual tension in what is supposed to be a romantic relationship. I often blame this sort of thing on the director because it is their trade to be able to see this from behind the camera, while watching dailies, and during the editing process. One look would have been all it took to realize ‘hey, this isn’t working’. With a little more direction I believe it could have. One reason this grated on me is that Valerian asks Laureline to marry him during their first scene in the movie. We the audience have just been introduced to them. That’s way too much, too fast. Let us get to know them first.
DeHaan’s portrayal of Valerian isn’t bad, but it’s dry. I think he and Besson were going for a professional agent’s demeanor, so perhaps that’s why. If the performance had been slightly more comical, it would’ve worked better. His trip through Big Market was fun, though. Delevingne comes across much better as Laureline because she easily has the funniest moments in the movie. Her rescue of Valerian, and her reaction to his trite peck on the cheek afterward, was quite enjoyable. And the scenes where the alien tries to convince Laureline to wear a certain dress before she’s served up for lunch are great. I loved it when she placed the clairvoyant squid on her head to find Valerian. The film really needed more moments like that.
The plot—Valerian and Laureline’s superior destroyed the Pearls’ homeworld years ago and has tried to cover it up—wasn’t what I was expecting, and that’s a good thing. It’s a simple story about doing the right thing. The moral thing. When Valerian agrees to trust Laureline to help the Pearls, that is when their romance actually gains some depth and meaning. Bringing justice to those who commit genocide, and allowing indigenous peoples to live their own way, are two themes that will always remain important.
The shape-changing character Bubble (played by Rihanna) was a fun addition and a clever way for Valerian to sneak in and rescue Laureline from a bad situation. But Bubble’s impact is cut short by her death right after their escape. Therefore she might as well have been cut from the narrative. Which is sad, because once it’s revealed she is a slave who feels like she has no identity—no existence past pleasing her master and his customers—I connected to her. It made her one of the more interesting characters in the whole movie. If she had to die, it should have been in the finale. But not this soon.
I liked the ending. It wasn’t overblown, save-the-universe sort of fare. Valerian and Laureline expose their commander’s crime, he is arrested, the Pearls depart Alpha on a ship that is a small recreation of their homeworld, and all is well. Only then does Laureline infer she’ll marry Valerian, and their kiss while awaiting rescue is a fine way to conclude the story. It reminded me of the old James Bond film endings, where Bond shares a fling with the femme fatale before returning to his duties. But in this case, this is more than a fling between Valerian and Laureline. They will remain together. They are each other’s partners, friends, and lovers, rather than a token sexual conquest.
Some have downplayed the film’s score composed by Alexandre Desplat. I like it. It doesn’t break new ground, and there’s no overall theme that is so catchy you’ll be humming it the next day, but the soundtrack is still good. ‘Pearls on Mul’ stands out for its evocative whimsy, perfect for the young Pearl princess walking through the surf of her homeworld, shyly smiling at young Pearl men with her pet converter on her shoulder.
Comparisons to Star Wars aren’t necessarily fair, as Valerian’s source material predates Lucas’s creation, and in turn, may have influenced it.
Valerian has truly impressive, knockout visuals. The alien worlds felt so real I wanted to visit them. I didn’t consider it CGI overload given the setting or story. Mül, the planet of the Pearls, is absolutely beautiful with its seashores, nebula and planets in the sky, and the African influenced-dress of the natives. Big Market, a desert enclosure where one can see into another dimension via special glasses, is grungy, overcrowded, and filled with all manner of species. Alpha, the huge space station referred to in the film’s title, contains so many unique alien cliques as to make the cantina scene from Star Wars appear bland. The 3D version was well worth the extra ticket price. Not since James Cameron’s Avatar have I seen the format utilized so well.
There’s a childlike wonder to the film that doesn’t demand anything from the viewer. Valerian is meant to be a thrilling ride through fantastical future landscapes. If one sits back and enjoys it for what it is, Valerian is a positive experience. It’s not plagued with the abysmal plot holes and brain-numbing CGI of the Transformers franchise. It has a moral message without being preachy. Though flawed, it is certainly a work of art.
The acting and chemistry between the two leads is simply off. Some dialogue is just as clunky as what George Lucas wrote for Attack of the Clones. The movie could have been aided greatly by snappier comedic lines and comebacks. This is also true of the supporting cast (though Ethan Hawke’s performance was a lot of fun).
Bubble should have lived, received more development, and played a part in the film’s finale. Otherwise, Valerian could have simply infiltrated the alien locale in a different manner and cut down on an already meandering narrative.
The plot needed to be streamlined. I get that Besson likes to take unusual paths to get from point A to point B, but this could’ve been done while cutting some things.
Two things the film needs: more comedy, more tension. Comedy as in funny dialogue. Tension as far as sexual and the deathly kind. Not tons, but a little goes a long way.
Summation: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets shoots for the stars but lands on the moon. It’s worth seeing at least once on the big screen in 3D. I’m willing to bet it becomes a cult film, with a dedicated fanbase who will enjoy it, warts and all. I’d like to see it again. I’s also like to see a sequel where the two leads are fleshed out better. It is also a reminder that, regardless of how expensive or beautiful a film is, without characters the audience can identify/sympathize with, it will likely fail. And that’s a shame, because Valerian deserves an audience.