Valerian, the new film from French filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, The Professional), was released two weeks ago, going up against Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
After the financial (not necessarily critical) success of Lucy and the continual success of his company, EuropaCorp, Besson finally had the clout to make his dream project. Valerian is an adaptation of the Valerian and Laureline comics series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Besson has reportedly wanted to make this film for over 20 years, but he instead made The Fifth Element—a pastiche to the Valerian books and the works of Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
So now that it’s out, did the dream become a reality? Has Luc Besson given us another masterpiece on the same level as The Professional and The Fifth Element?
I did not like Valerian, but it’s certainly not a completely flawed movie. in fact, part of the frustration I have with this film are the things that do work quite wonderfully. The practical effects are really great. There is some suit and puppet work that I could easily see influencing a generation of people who want to get into special effects. There are big interesting sci-fi ideas at play (Big Market, the dimensional portal creating a planet, the City of Alpha) that make the world feel large and established. Besson knows how to make things look fantastic in a frame, and this was no doubt a beautiful film. You could take stills from this movie and hang them on your wall, and there are sections of Alexandre Desplat’s score that I really loved. This was also not your typical blockbuster film about destroying everything but rather a film about connection. These were all great, interesting elements.
But these elements don’t stop the film from being a real mess. It’s like walking into a child’s bedroom to find they stapled all their belongings to the ceiling. It’s super weird, and you might even tell people they have to check it out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mess. So what are the major issues holding back Valerian? Why does The Fifth Element work but this stumbles?
It’s all the surface stuff. There is a lot of great stuff at the core (see all the stuff I previously mentioned). But the leads are truly bad, and these are the people you’re supposed to go on this journey with. Dane DeHaan gives a performance that could kill his career if he wasn’t already an established indie actor. Between this and his turn as Harry Osbourne, it’s become apparent that DeHaan isn’t a bad actor (I loved him in The Place Beyond the Pines) but an actor that needs a strong director to guide him, and Besson has never been known as an actor’s director. DeHaan feels like he’s giving a performance akin to a Keanu Reeves impression—not like the actual Keanu Reeves but more of an impression of the person in your first comedy class that is doing their Keanu Reeves. It’s brutal. And he’s the main character of the film. Would this film have worked better if you did in fact have that kind of Kurt Russell/Harrison Ford/Bruce Willis “seen-it-all-unimpressed” actor in the role? I have no doubt. Valerian is a character we’re supposed to believe is the best and has a world-weary cynicism to him, and DeHaan just doesn’t bring that.
Cara Delevingne may indeed end up being a fine actress but between this and Suicide Squad, she’ll have trouble convincing people of that. It’s not really her fault as both films give her little to do but pose and look good. The fifteen-minute chunk of this film that features just her sans Valerian was pretty good and made me wish the movie was just about her. Those scenes don’t have her just reacting to Valerian but doing her own thing.
Rihanna is fine, but she really just has a two scene cameo. Without trying to give anything away, the character Rihanna plays continues Besson’s strange sexual politics with holdovers from The Professional and The Fifth Element.
In addition to poorly directed actors, another aspect holding this film back is its runtime. There are longer movies, and if a movie is working runtimes don’t really matter. But Valerian feels LONG. I believe there was a hope of creating cliffhanger elements—scenes with “What will happen?” moments from action to action, creating a feeling of suspense. Valerian tries for that, but it doesn’t quite work. I imagine it’s because I didn’t care for the characters, so I just wanted things to move on rather than furthering an inconsequential side journey.
It’s also worth noting the amount of confusing plot elements. The group I was with had so many questions about certain elements that we couldn’t answer. That’s not the biggest deal in the world with a film like this about character motivation and set pieces. But if you’re watching and find yourself going “Wait, what?” know you weren’t alone. For example, Valerian spends the majority of the film being a soldier that doesn’t take orders. But in a pivotal moment, Valerian claims he’s just a soldier who only ever takes orders. He then stops taking orders, acting like it’s the first time in his life he’s ever done that to prove to Laureline that he can be more than an obedient soldier. Laureline apparently believed Valerian was just an obedient soldier, even though he’d been ignoring orders the entire film. It’s… weird.
So that’s Valerian, a film that has an interesting core but so many surface issues. The themes it presents aren’t strong enough to get past the runtime. I’d still encourage audiences to go see the movie—it’s a visual feast with some interesting ideas on its mind. But don’t expect to love any of the characters or walk away with any quotable lines. Marvel at the mess and then wonder why no one cleaned it up.