I’ll be honest, the only interest I had in Luc Besson’s latest cinematic offering, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, was to see if it really was as bad as every single critic I respect was saying. With a staggering budget of $209 million, it is both the most expensive European and most expensive independent film ever made, so props for that, but with a trailer that looked like one of the most chaotic things I have ever seen, I suspected that that $209 million had been funnelled in the CGI direction resembling something like The Phantom Menace or Attack Of The Clones. Even typing those titles gives me PTSD.
Valerian tells the story of two human police officers in 28th century space, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and it is absolutely, unequivocally awful. The narrative follows Valerian and Laureline as they undertake a mission to discover what hidden danger lies at the centre of the old International Space Station, now a huge, floating multi-species community called Alpha. However, in order to truly talk about the film you have to divide the criticism in to two parts, the visuals and then everything else.
In terms of aesthetic, Valerian has a lot to offer. The universe presented on screen is big, bold and bright, with literally hundreds of different types of aliens and settings for the eyes to feast on. A passion project for filmmaker Luc Besson, the film is clearly the result of a hyperactive and expansive imagination, and there is no doubt that what you see on screen is visually stunning if not a tad too video game like for my personal taste. The problems for Valerian start to stack up, however, when you consider the plot, dialogue, characters, virtually anything other than the fun visuals. I would go on a long and extensive rant about the various plot holes that appear throughout, but the truth I simply stopped caring after the first hour mark. Besides from its rich and interesting graphics, everything about Valerian is a hot damn mess.
One of the key factors in the film’s failure is its generic, cringeworthy, downright awful dialogue. Written, produced and directed by Besson himself, the decision to place a zero chemistry, cardboard cutout romance at the centre of the narrative proves to be one that produces tired sighs and eye rolls rather than character endearment. No matter how fun the vibrant aesthetic might be, the material that the poor cast are forced to work with is mediocre at its best and utterly dreadful at its worst. From cute creature sidekicks to double crossing villains, there is absolutely nothing about the plot that feels original or interesting after all the narrative cards have been shown. The film very much feels like an amalgamation of ‘greatest hits’ moments from previous science fiction classics, but it possesses none of the heart or charm that all good examples of the genre have.
Valerian moves from one action set piece to another that, whilst decently executed, continually lets itself down with corny jokes and poor character work. As the credits rolled I was left wondering how a film so visually stimulating could also feel so much like watching paint dry. It is honestly the closest I have come to falling asleep in the theatre this year.
Valerian’s plight is not helped by the strange miscasting of Dane DeHaan in the lead role. The audience are encouraged to see Valerian as a weathered veteran who has given nine years service to the cause, an important character anchor that is made impossible to invest given the fact that the 31-year old DeHaan looks no older than 17 in the role. As for his performance, he carries the film with a Ryan Reynolds-lite type charm, but ultimately falls at most hurdles thanks to the terrible dialogue he is forced to bring to life. As partner and awkward love interest Laureline, Cara Delevingne further proves that she can actually hold her own in the acting arena. I enjoyed her in 2015’s Paper Towns and, despite the terrible material she has to contend with, I enjoyed her here once again. Unfortunately, though, the pair share absolutely no on screen chemistry, which only serves to compound the awkward nature of their forced love story.
In a twist I didn’t see coming, singing superstar Rihanna actually proves to be a shining light with a supporting performance as a shape shifting alien in one of the film’s more enjoyable sequences. Further minor roles are played by the likes of Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke, and whilst they are great performers in their own right, they too fall foul of the terrible dialogue their characters are given.
Overall, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is a bad, bad movie. All the visual wonder in the world cannot hide the fact that the writing is atrocious and some of the major casting decisions are oddly distracting. I have seen a some wondering whether the film will be looked on more fondly in ten years time, a positive fate similar that of The Fifth Element, another Besson picture, but Valerian boasts none of the charm or self awareness that The Fifth Element did. In my opinion, at least, it’s a downright stinker.