Luc Besson may not be a household name, but ask any fan of film who he is and you’ll be swept into a drawn-out lauding of his movies. Besson directed both The Fifth Element and Leon: The Professional, both of which found huge critical success years after their release. Yet, if you want recent examples of his work, you’d be left unsatisfied. Most of Besson’s recent work consists of screenwriting credits for films like Taken 2 and Brick Mansions, none of which have been particularly well received or notable. His last film he directed was 2014’s Lucy, a lukewarm film with good ideas, poor execution and none of the eccentric charm or vision that makes Besson’s early films so much fun. So, when I walked into the theater to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Worlds, I was a bit skeptical. Was this the version of Besson that dripped with style and vision? Or was it just a pale imitation of his previous work?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, once boiled down, a sci-fi adventure. The story is set in the 28th century, where humanity has created a gigantic metropolis in space known as Alpha. Over hundreds of years, aliens from all over the galaxy have come there to thrive and prosper, creating a cornucopia of cultures that mingle with each other every day. Alpha is home to everyone, and the heart of Valerian is exploring this strange world with our main characters, the titular Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevigne). The problem with Valerian is how they explore it. The plot has our two agents racing against time to stop an ever-expanding radiation zone at Alpha's core, but that sense of urgency is seldom felt in the actual plot. There are chases, sure, but they have no tension. There's a mystery, but if you're paying attention even slightly, you'll know exactly where the story is going after 20 minutes. The driving point of the plot is supposed to be mystery, but it completely deflates once the movie starts rolling.
The best aspect of Valerian is the world, and I'm sure that sentiment will be shared amongst anyone who sees this movie, whether they thought it was good or bad. There's a scene early on that depicts the genesis and growth of Alpha, and is one of my favorite intros of 2017. It's humorous and magical, friendly and dazzling. The various creatures and aliens on Alpha are diverse and interesting, taking that nuanced world-building from Star Wars and executing it with style. Yet, that's about all that Valerian seems to get right. Nearly every other aspect is fundamentally flawed, and I wish that were an exaggeration.
Take our leading actors for example. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne have both given their worst performances in their careers in Valerian. No, I'm not exaggerating. DeHaan is in no way a believable federal agent, and his gruff mumbling throughout the film makes the whole thing feel like a fan-film. He's painted as a ladies man at the beginning of Valerian and I nearly burst out laughing when Delevigne referred to him as a 'lady killer'. It's like pointing to a turd and calling it Toblerone; good for a laugh, but I'll be damned if you try and get me to swallow it. I just couldn't stomach the blatant wish-fulfillment when the lead is far from being suave or charismatic in the slightest. Delevigne has never actually given a good performance on film before, but in Valerian her acting stands out as particularly cardboard-esque. Seriously, look at any of these images I have in this review and behold the only face she makes on camera. What makes these performances even worse is that Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be attracted to each other, and they seem anything but. Their interactions are stiff and stale, and even the dialogue they share is poorly written. Kids might be able to get behind these characters, but if you have a fully developed brain then you're in for a sore experience.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot is also all over the place. It's flimsy and dull, failing to interest the viewer in the central mystery presented likely due to how obvious the outcome is. The film opens by almost completely explaining the events that are 'revealed' later on at the climax of Valerian, and yet pretends like the audience didn't see what happened. This, combined with some clumsy foreshadowing and telegraphing by the villain spell out the plot for the rest of the film, leaving little to enjoy besides the beautifully designed world. And, call me crazy, but Valerian seems to know this, considering that it takes significant breaks from the plot for trivial side-stories. There's a point midway through where the film drops the little momentum it had to rescue Laureline from some bumbling space creatures. This sequence is pretty to look at, and has moments of fun sprinkled here and there, but serves no purpose whatsoever. In the end, this section of the movie only makes it more painful once our heroes return to the story at hand.
Look, I don't hate Valerian. It's a beautiful film, with amazing CG and a set-piece or two that are fun on the surface level. The world it's set in is captivating and unique, something that is so rare today in Hollywood. But no movie has ever become great just by looking good; the plot, the dialogue, the characters need to be written well so the films stunning display can create synergy between the narrative and the visuals. This is how a great sci-fi adventure film is made, and it's something that Besson has completely forgotten how to do with Valerian. Visuals are in service to the writing, and Besson put the cart in front of the horse on this one. The image of Alpha floating in space, filled with interesting creatures and civilizations is incredible, but with a couple of boring humans taking up most of the runtime, you'd be better off watching the trailer and moving on.
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