5 out of 10
Dane DeHaan as Valerian
Cara Delevingne as Laureline
Clive Owen as Arün Filitt
Rihanna as Bubble
Ethan Hawke as Jolly the Pimp
Kris Wu as Sergeant Neza
Rutger Hauer as the President of the Human Federation
John Goodman as the voice of Igon Siruss
Elizabeth Debicki as the voice of Haban Limaï
Sam Spruell as General Okto Bar
Alain Chabat as Bob the Pirate
Directed by Luc Besson
There are all kinds of directors. There are directors who focus on words, delivering intellectual and sometimes complex works amid flat or basic backgrounds. There are directors with fantastic visual storytelling sensibilities, not just able to create a mesmerizing mise en scène but to deliver pertinent information with it. And there are the rare, rare few who are both, letting words and pictures intermingle and support one another without playing favorites. Luc Besson is not one of the rare ones.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a founding member (so to speak) of Cinéma du look is more capable with visuals than words, and in film that’s not necessarily a drawback. As long as a filmmaker understands how dialogue and what it delivers – characterization, theme, exposition – are needed, he or she can fill in the gaps and still produce good storytelling. This was certainly the point of view animating Besson and fellows like Leos Carax and Jean-Jacques Beineix in their early days, and movies like Diva or La Femme Nikita are strong arguments in their favor. It comes down to whether the person in question focuses on visuals from preference or from a disregard for what the written portion of a movie brings to the table. One of these choices is survivable, the other is not.
In a film about time, dimension and space traveling secret agents saving the universe, it might seem like that’s an absurd comment to make. What you need is a visual grandeur and a willingness to embrace the most ridiculous visual concepts. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has that in spades. Loosely adapted from the long-running French comic series “Valérian and Laureline,” Besson’s return to the space opera genre finds the two secret agents (DeHaan and Delevingne) alternately fighting and flirting with one another while attempting to recapture a one-of-a-kind lizard which can copy anything it ingests. Their partnership and faith in one another is put to the test when they discover themselves in the midst of a cover-up which could destroy Alpha, the planet-size city they live on and protect.
As a flight of fancy, Valerian is a rocket ship on nitro. Besson has pushed his visual talents to the extreme to create a sense of a unique, alien world for these characters to live and fight in. An early adventure on a desert planet, which hosts an invisible marketplace, is an exemplar of the best Valerian has to offer. As Valerian crosses dimensions to the marketplace section, dodging gangsters and bizarre weapons, Laureline walks calmly alongside him on the desert world dealing with her own problems, the camera cutting rapidly between them almost obscenely confident in the audience’s ability to keep up. Though no other set piece is quite so well done, it’s clear Besson has pushed his visual ingenuity to its utmost. At the same time, he’s given long-time collaborators Hugues Tissandier and Thierry Arbogast free reign for as many off the wall color combinations and bizarre shapes and formulations as they can come up with. The result is a world which frequently does manage to feel truly alien, visualizing the concepts of the comic that spawned but also existing in its own world.
And if you can find a screening which will cut or fast forward any moment when characters are required to speak to one another, it’s a fun movie to watch. As alien and ridiculous as the world of Valerian is, it pales in comparison to the people (and I used that term very loosely) who populate it.
It’s not so much that they don’t act, talk or interact in any way which would resemble human beings. They couldn’t be mistaken for aliens or even robots. The offhandedness to the point of disinterest applied to the central characters is so complete, it’s almost awe-inspiring. Besson recognizes that the set pieces have to stop from time to time and Valerian and Laureline have to fill in the time between with words, but more than that doesn’t seem to matter. Thus we get Valerian proposing marriage to Laureline within roughly five minutes of both characters being introduced to us and spending every break between stunts going back to find her answer without giving the viewer any reason to care what it will be. It’s just assumed we’ll stick around to find out because we paid our money to get into the theater.
At the same time, even for an effects-heavy action film, it would be generous to call the characters ‘sketches.’ Valerian is a skilled but arrogant superstar who speaks mostly in one-liners and always tries to be coolest guy in the room. It’s a style that can work with a properly-magnetic actor and a writer who understands dialogue very well, but it fits DeHaan like one of David Byrne’s concert suits. Instead, he comes across as if he’s doing a Keanu Reeves impression. Delevingne manages better, partly because she isn’t cursed with the one liners, but Laureline’s constant irritation with Valerian makes all of her line readings start to sound alike. Only the more seasoned actors like Hawke manage to put enough spin on the terrible dialogue to get something interesting out of it.
But they come and go too quickly to appreciate due to Valerian’s episodic nature as Besson rushes to show off as much of his sandbox as possible. It makes the narrative not only start and stop but actively travel in circles. Though the primary narrative is straight forward, the film itself frequently jets off for digressions for no reason than showing off more of the space station as Laureline spends a whole reel searching for a lost Valerian, who must then return the favor. It robs Valerian of any sort of momentum and offers little in return apart from Rihanna’s shape shifter comic relief. It’s one thing to say, ‘the visuals drive the story, not the characters.’ It’s something very different to say, ‘the visuals drive the story, what are characters?’
The terrible part is it didn’t need to be this way. Valerian’s spirited opening detailing the idyllic life of a beach-dwelling alien species and its accidental decimation is a showcase for Besson’s storytelling prowess. With minimal dialogue, he conveys perfectly who the characters are, how they related to one another, why we should care about them and what they are all feeling as they watch an approaching doom they know they can’t avoid. If any other five minutes of Valerian had half as much humanity or capability of character expression, the film would be an astounding triumph.
Instead it’s an astounding mess.