When you hear that an acclaimed director is working on their dream project, there’s reason to get excited. As the wave of superhero films subsided for the summer, visionary director Luc Besson brought the beloved French comic Valerian and Laureline to life on the big screen. For all its visual splendor and immersive wonder, Valerian lacks two very important qualities…character and heart.
I don’t know where to begin with this film. Early reviews for Valerian weren’t surprising and I read one stating it would be a challenge to explain what’s going on in Valerian in 30 words or less, so here goes:
Two intergalactic space cops fall in love attempting to restore an alien civilization to it’s former glory, uncovering military government corruption to exploit that same alien race for its technology (30 words)
Reviewing it is one of those “good news/bad news” type situations. I’ll start with the good because Besson has always favored style over substance in his films, so it’s no real surprise that this film was visually stunning. Hugues Tissandier probably had many sleepless nights overseeing production design for this uniquely vibrant film and working with the art direction team to keep Besson’s vision cohesive and on track was undoubtedly difficult, but it paid off. This was one very few films I have seen where the 3D aspect actually makes the film significantly better…makes it something more, something special. The abundance of creativity on display in the sets, creatures and futuristic fantasy world is phenomenal and it’s a great bit of fun to behold and be a part of. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast had a lot to deal with considering all the visual effects shots throughout the movie, fortunately he’s no stranger to Besson’s style having worked with him on Leon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, Lucy and The Fifth Element. I imagine editing this movie must have been a continuity nightmare for Julien Rey, who did a reasonable job but could have easily cut 20 minutes or so from the final 137 minute run-time.
Although it looks great, other aspects of the film are basically absent. In all honesty, Nathalie Cheron completely fucked up casting the lead actors and it’s a major part of the film’s complete lack of box office success so far. Saying Dane DeHaan was not good in this movie would be a kindness. Everything that made him a good fit for Chronicle (2012) and A Cure for Wellness (2016) highlighted his inadequacy for the role of Major Valerian. If I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt (and that’s a big if), it’s probably tough to get in sync when you’re environment is mostly green screen and maybe the character just didn’t translate well from the comic because he isn’t believable as an action lead, an interstellar casanova and least of all as a worthy romantic partner. Not only was his general performance subpar, but it looked like he stayed up every night on set snorting blow. The massive swollen bags under his eyes and general lack of energy really stung because it’s rare to see an actor’s complete disinterest so clearly on screen. I hate to be derogatory, but this was an absolute phone-in on his part and a cringeworthy 3D slap in the face to the audience who paid to watch it. His stock as a Hollywood commodity is going to take a massive hit, especially since the movie has only recouped about $22-million of its $177-million budget going into its second weekend.
Not to be completely outdone when it comes to bad acting performances, Cara Delevingne was slightly better than DeHaan in her role as Sergeant Laureline. Luckily she wasn’t quite as terrible. In her defense, she’s a former model with absolutely no formal acting training or coaching and it shows, but she is gorgeous and that undoubtedly helped her land this role. Laureline doesn’t translate very well either and their characters’ chemistry is basically nonexistent. Although the screenplay for the film isn’t complete rubbish, Besson has to take responsibility for the wretched dialogue and total absence of character development.
With Besson’s cult classic The Fifth Element celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Valerian was supposed to serve as a sort of thematic and spiritual sequel. Comparatively, this film lacks all of the intangibles that made its predecessor great. Element had a very strong central cast which elevated the far fetched space opera. The characters were well written and the dialogue was strong which, in turn, resulted in an investment on the part of the audience. We actually cared about the characters and their relationships with one another. The opposite is true for Valerian. While there are some good actors scattered about the periphery like Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen, the two leads at the center had a negative gravity that brought the whole project down. There is no reason for the audience to care what happens to them when they don’t even appear to care about one another. Furthermore, Element didn’t rely on the visual elements to drive the narrative. Rather, it used the aesthetic to enhance the audience’s perception of the world so that the narrative could play out. Again, Valerian is the exact inverse. There is no narrative…well, hardly. It dazzles you visually but that only masks the lack of substance and depth throughout the film. Without the extra layers of immersion, the film doesn’t have a lot to hang its hat on. Having seen both films in theaters not too far apart this year, it’s very easy to see which is the superior film.
The setting would make for a great video-game where emotional attachment isn’t necessary. However, the noticeable absence of emotional context doesn’t jive for an epic outer space love story. Although it has its bright spots, I find it very hard to believe Luc Besson looked at this final product and was truly satisfied he made the movie he’d been waiting a lifetime to make. It just doesn’t make sense for a director of his caliber.
Recommendation: Despite the many issues I have with the film, it was still an entertaining experience overall. If you’re going to see it, spring for the 3D and really let yourself sink into that world. It’s certainly family friendly and almost written to avoid alienating that audience.