This weekend saw the release of two big-budget blockbusters, and while I will be sure to watch Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in the near future, I decided to check out Luc Besson’s most recent feature instead. His best-known science fiction movie, The Fifth Element, is remembered fondly for its imaginative world and charaters, and I came into this one hoping for something similarly new. I’m afraid that isn’t what I got, though, and the exciting visuals promised in the previews ended up being just about all that Valerian delivered.
The film, based on the long-running French sci-fi comic Valérian et Laureline, takes place several decades into the future when thousands of sentient species from different galaxies come to live together at space station Alpha. Human police agents Laureline (Cara Delevingne) and Valerian (SKU #283826) are sent to interrupt a black market transaction on a desert planet, but when a particularly vivid dream takes hold of Valerian, a few routine missions give way to reveal an intergalactic scheme of cover-ups and corruption.
The universe of this movie is truly impressive. We spend some time on the beach paradise of planet Mül, whose inhabitants are something like a cross between Avatar‘s Na’vi and the Zora from The Legend of Zelda series, and the film contrasts this effectively with the techno-urban climate dominating much of the rest of the film. Valerian draws visually and thematically from The Fifth Element, presenting a vast, multi-cultural city with flying cars and exotic aliens and works with themes of the human condition and the power of love. This environmental work and the film’s visuals are, however, the film’s only real strengths.
Valerian feels like the movie from a thousand minds, and none of them communicated well with each other. The story jumps around wildly, action scenes come out of nowhere, and some really interesting ideas are introduced and immediately forgotten. As an example, the mission I mentioned at the start has our protagonists using special equipment to interact with a marketplace in another dimension. Valerian is able to send only his hand and gun over and then pop back into our reality, but the technology is never seen again. This is all treated as a run-of-the-mill tourist trap and could have been expanded on dramatically, but the plot moves on, and future conflict is handled through standard running, flying, and shooting.
Instead of feeling like a cohesive movie, Valerian comes across as an effort to put as many ideas and elements from the comic series as possible on screen at once; the best word to describe it is “bloated”. I feel that there is material here for an incredible movie trilogy or TV series if handled properly, but if the box office return is as disappointing as many have projected, we likely won’t see that anytime soon. As it stands, this is all too big and boring to bring in new audience members.
Probably the strangest decision on the part of the director was casting a 2×4 in a lead role of a major motion picture. It is certainly a historic moment in cinematic diversity, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Cara Delevingne being asked to play off of a piece of propped-up hardware. Despite Ms. Delevingne’s okay performance, the movie comes to a complete stop at each scene meant to develop their romantic bond, and any strengths of Valerian’s character or abilities must be told to us rather than actually shown. The characters have absolutely no chemistry together; splinters received from kissing unfinished yellow pine in fact result from a physical reaction and not a chemical one.
Coming back around to the film’s big strength, though, I hold the highest respect for the dozens of visual artists behind Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This is a very good-looking movie, and I can only imagine how much time and effort went into its design. Ultimately, though, while I can often recommend movies for a wide variety of reasons, this one is long enough that unless you are a devoted Luc Besson fan, your time is likely better spent elsewhere.