Written and Directed by Luc Besson, based on the comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézieres | 137 min
Luc Besson’s opulent, Métal Hurlant magazine-loving style made his big-budget science-fiction party The Fifth Element a cult favourite in the two decades since its release. As Valerian is his first genuine space opera since then, stuffed full of colour and aliens and action, my hopes were high he’d recreate the joy of that earlier gem. Instead, it’s a disaster, a film so ill-conceived and clunky it makes you wonder if it was made by an entirely different filmmaker looking to ape the style of the earlier film, but with no sense of dialogue or character.
It begins on an alien tropical paradise called Mül, peopled by tall, slim, and beautiful Na’vi-esque folks whose entire civilization is wiped out by a war from beyond their world. It turns out power-hungry humans are responsible, a secret uncovered by two intergalactic police officers, Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline, who work out of Alpha, a gigantic space station inhabited by hundreds of different species of aliens living in harmony.
There, I just saved more than two hours of your life.
Besson’s first language is French, a possible reason for the dialogue’s tin ear. How else do you explain Laureline saying, “Now, take me to Valerian now.” It’s a little like Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.”
But, it doesn’t excuse her actually saying the line, nor does it excuse Delevingne and DeHaan’s casting. They both look like teenagers, which undercuts the plausibility of their being seasoned, capable galactic law enforcers. Even putting aside their negative chemistry, DeHaan is supposed to be an overconfident but charismatic rogue, a role for which he’s entirely unsuited. He’s carved out an impressive career playing misfits and young men in pain, not Han Solo. Here he manages to instead find an insincere, smug entitlement that he never overcomes. All while Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock(!), Ethan Hawke, Rutger Hauer, and Rihanna offer pointless walk-ons or brief support.
Valerian‘s one saving grace is a big slab of visual imagination—the aliens and alien worlds glisten and pop, high-end CGI creations. But the eye candy can only take you so far when you couldn’t care less about the central plot—which hinges on some nonsense about a cute reptile that shits magic pearls of power—while also managing at least half-a-dozen head-scratching plot holes you could drive a star destroyer through. At one point Valerian punches out a superior officer, then, a moment later, gives an impassioned speech about his dedication to the rule of law and order. And I haven’t even mentioned the sexism or eye-rolling sentiment.
Best go enjoy Besson’s wacky Lucy—which also didn’t make any sense but at least was fun—or his little-seen period fantasy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, also adapting a classic French graphic novel. Or maybe go back and revisit The Fifth Element, which still holds up. Just forget Valerian ever happened.