FILM REVIEW: VALERIAN A Beautiful Space Flick Within A Messy Black Hole
At a loss for words to accurately describe the impossibly beautiful mess that the upcoming sci-fi thriller Valerian is, I resort to the tunes that grace the opening montage of the film and note that the entire movie is as if the director took his (hallucinatory) pills and put his helmet on. Yes, as David Bowie instructs in his iconic song Space Oddity, French filmmaker Luc Besson seems to have been on a substance-induced trip to the moon when he made this film, whose full official title is the bloated Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
The film is a great interplanetary cloud of dust—it has remarkably bad dialogue, mostly painful acting, and careless exposition and sloppy plot details. And yet the movie is amazingly captivating, not just because of its ethereal colors and its parade of characters straight out of Star Wars (although all of those are worth the praise they are receiving). It is enthralling because the filmmakers are clearly enamored with their creation, they care deeply about the story and characters, and they sincerely convey as much through the opening bits. At the very least, this will earn your respect.
We begin with a well-executed and tight theory about how humanity goes from space race to space age, how a U.S.-China handshake of cooperation and peace can become a U.S./China-alien encounter, and how a small international space station can turn into a monstrous alien behemoth known as Alpha (the City of the title). Eventually we reach the 28th Century. All of this to the tunes of Bowie. Not bad.
The next prologue takes us to a divinely colored, peaceful habitat where sapient beings (evolved to the point where they turn to light when they perish) are going about their carefree day until sinister rockets from space annihilate their planet (called Mul).
If this somewhat dizzying array of prologues sounds annoying, you’ll soon wish for more. Not soon after the last trace of Mul vanishes from screen, we are galactically transported into the virtual reality beach of Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who is soon given a mission to rescue to stolen object with the help of his space partner Laureline (Clara Delevigne, who played the Enchantress in Suicide Squad). You know you are in for an unwelcome dizzying ride the moment those two start talking to each other. The non-existent chemistry between them yields to childish banter and witless jokes, with Valerian asking a despondent Laureline to marry him in the opening scenes.
The major problem with Valerian, if I had to center on just one, is that the movie sloppily traverses the dimensions of space opera, teenage angst drama, detective story, and social commentary novel in a neck-turning zig zag that makes an otherwise nauseating trip to the moon seem like a joy ride. While the eye-popping effect and the beautiful colors of the film hold tight in the wake of this onslaught of style, the film’s otherwise interesting plot does not.
The valiant duo soon completes its mission (after a rather cool inter-dimensional market rescue scene in which Besson really stretches his creative ingenuity) and are tasked with returning a recovered artifact back to Alpha. There, they are received by a commander of the human forces, Arun Filitt, played by a miscast Clive Owen (Gary Oldman, in a throwback to Besson’s old The Fifth Element, would have been my choice). Subtlety and mystery are shed as easily as logical dialogue is, and Filitt’s true nature is immediately made apparent.
And so it is that Valerian and the 21st Century appropriately-gender-equalized Laureline must fight the man, discover the truth, and avoid racism and genocide (all topics that are still in Vogue in the 28th Century, it seems, along with a bevy of other pop cultural phenomena from our time). Along the way we encounter a silly Ethan Hawke playing a pimp named Jolly, and a long-suffering shapeshifting diva known as Bubbles, played by the much-maligned Rihanna.
If you still care about the insufferable lead duo at that point, I admire you, but in any event not even the two subplot players provide temporary relief from the love birds’ grating interactions and hackneyed narrow escapes from danger followed by teenage declarations of love. The Rihanna scene is so obviously ripped off from a very similar montage in The Fifth Element (when Besson had less technology at his disposal), as to seem disingenuous.
Besson is obviously a well-established, creative superpower. His movies, from the Taken series to the more recent Lucy, are eclectic and imaginative, and he is never afraid to go his own way, no matter how hare-brained his wacky ideas may seem. I fault Valerian none of that—it is, after all, based on the equally wacky science fiction comic series written by Pierre Christin. There really is a lot to like in Valerian, from John Goodman as the voice of a Jabba The Hutt-like criminal to Herbie Hancock as the nonplussed defense minister. A trio of amusingly annoying and gossipy duckling-like figures (improved versions of Jar Jar Binks), shows how capable he is of creating outlandish moments while a movie to be taken seriously.
The problem is that his actors (and his own screenplay) do not, polluting an otherwise cosmic beauty with trash out of a space capsule. Perhaps it is their relative acting immaturity, or that they were surrounded by special effects, but the tonality between the two does not work, and like the “red zone cancer” at the heart of Alpha in the film, this menace infects the entire film.
A poem to sci-fi motion pictures the world over becomes, instead, a joke that starts on a high and in the end resorts to flatulence to amuse.
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