Prior to the release of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I had high hopes. I’m a big fan of its director, Luc Besson—Leon and The Fifth Element are two of my favorite movies, and the visuals showcased in the advertisements looked absolutely stunning. Once the film released, however, and the first reviews began trickling out, I grew concerned. Their reviews were not a mix between good and bad, but between bad and worse. I did what I could to prepare myself for a mindless popcorn movie, set my expectations low, and dove in.
I was not prepared for the film to hit its narrative peak during the opening montage.
The setting of Valerian is pretty dang cool, don’t get me wrong, and some of the alien and creature designs were really rad. Unfortunately, it takes more than eye-catching visuals to make a good movie—it also takes a compelling story and sympathetic characters, two things this movie lacks. The two leads share no chemistry and are honestly the least interesting characters in the film: Laureline comes the closest to being a good character, while Valerian himself is an unlikeable jerk who we are told (by Valerian himself!) is a handsome, loyal soldier.
Told. Never shown.
I went into the movie with an open mind and the knowledge that I was seeing a French director adapting a fifty-year old French comic, which was bound to make some aspects of the story feel dated or strange to my American sensibilities. The so-called romance was grating and I’m pretty sure I have a concussion from how forcefully the movie beat me over the head with it. There were, by my count, a total of four genuinely likable characters in the entire movie, all of whom exit the narrative as soon as they fulfill their purpose. It did not happen gracefully.
For better or worse, Valerian feels like a movie that was made by a man with a genuine love for the source material, but perhaps more love for the places than the people in them. Dane DeHaan felt incredibly miscast as the titular Valerian, and Rihanna’s character was criminally underused. There were a number of times where a scene felt as if it had no place within the story and could have been cut with nothing of value being lost. Perhaps another round with the editor would have helped trim some of the fat away . . . but I am not entirely sure how much meat there ever was on the bone.
I suspect that Besson made this film primarily for people like himself: those already so in love with the characters and setting of Valerian et Laureline that they did not need to be made to care. Unfortunately, in doing so, audiences new to the setting are given very little in the way of introduction to this world and its characters, and very little reason to care about what happens to anyone in it.
If you want to see some beautiful effects work and some neat creature designs, see if you can catch a matinee, or wait for Netflix. Just don’t go in expecting a compelling story or likeable characters with more than five minutes of combined screen time. If you want to see a good Luc Besson science fiction-flavored action film, watch The Fifth Element. Even in its worst moments, it is worlds better than this.