Valerian: An Imaginative Mess
Review by Aaron Haughton
Luc Besson's passion project Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was met with an onslaught of negative criticism upon its mid July release. The fact that it was based on a French sci-fi comic series (Valérian and Laureline) not many people were familiar with pretty much guaranteed the film's non-success in America, but after catching the film at the 2nd run theater in town, I feel like the initial negative backlash made Besson's vision out to be worse than it actually is. It's by no means Fifth Element good, but it's also not prequel Star Wars or Jupiter Rising bad; it sits somewhere in between, and I think that it'll find its place among the cult world over time, garnering a core of enthusiasts.
The story follows the intergalactic law enforcers, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne), on their space exploits, which lead them into an massive space conspiracy involving the mass extinction of an Avatar-esque race, known as Pearls. Their journey leads them to the gigantic space station city of Alpha, an ever expanding city consisting of species from all across the universe. At the center of the city, a dark force threatens the peaceful existence of Alpha, which Valerian and Laureline must get to the bottom of.
The opening montage of the film, set to the wonderful sounds of David Bowie's "A Space Oddity," perfectly sinks you into the spectacular nature of the Besson's world as you watch human progression over the course of several hundreds of years. What begins as a human based space station, which unites all countries, quickly blossoms into something much larger as various space species are introduced. Eventually, the space station grows so large and teems with so many cultures that it has to leave Earth's orbit and is cast into space.
The montage is immediately followed up with the introduction to the the Pearls, a low-tech humanoid race that lives in harmony with their surroundings. Their planet is very beach-oriented and they live in little shell huts. The colors are extremely vibrant and really pop off the screen. The visuals had me spinning in awe and thoroughly enjoying these first 10-15 minutes. However, as the happy vibe of the Pearls' home world was marred with falling objects that most assuredly would result in their destruction, it became clear that the film would lose its sense of spectacle as soon as our leads are introduced, which, ironically enough, turned out to be true.
I've never been a particular fan of Dane DeHaan, with the exception of Chronicle, and I've given him multiple attempts to get me over in his corner, but his performances always fall emotionally flat. Valerian is no exception. DeHaan's performance is easily the worst out of the cast, which even includes Rihanna. I had less qualms with Delevigne, but she was by no means excellent. The film really loses its gusto by having their leads miscast to a duo who have trouble emoting and share absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. Throughout the film, we're supposed to be convinced that Valerian and Laureline have a romantic connection, but most of their scenes are cold and lifeless. That would be major problem number one.
The second major issue that prevented this visual spectacle from being truly great is the shoddy script. It's predictable at ever turn. You'll know the villain the moment you see him, and your suspicions will be confirmed in the following scene. The only thing that remains a mystery is the villain's motives, which aren't really as effective as not knowing who the bad guy is (at least, in this case). This ultimately leads to very few moments of tension, and sub-plots that are introduced don't ever conclude or tie into the story at large. For instance, during the market scene, Valerian's life is threatened by a large Jabba The Hutt like creature, yet we never see him again. It's things like this that really beat the audience to death.
The visuals are always consistently stunning, and the worlds Besson creates are highly imaginative, even if they feel a little familiar. The vision of the film is there, it just seems like nobody really cared to put that level of detail into any of the other aspects of the film. There are solid moments and scenes that I think will stick with me, like the opening montage, the Pearls' world and Rihanna's crazy pole dance, but the whole experience just comes across uneven and flat due to the acting and story issues.
In short, it's an OK film that had the potential to be excellent if a little more time was spent on the script and leads were recast. There's no denying Besson's knack for visual storytelling, which might be at its best here in Valerian, but the flimsy story and terrible leads may be enough to eclipse the magnum scope of his impressive landscapes. Still, through all the bad, there's some fun to be had with Valerian if you're willing to look past its glaring flaws and surrender to the silly face paced space venture.
Rating: 3 reptiles pooping pearls outta 5.
What do you think? Did you find Valerian to be a absolute visual spectacle? Did you think the script was a bit lacking? Do you think Dane DeHaan is a good actor? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!