...and it’s bad. Really bad. Observations:
I’m not overly familiar with the source material, though I have read plenty of comix in the Franco-Belgian bandes desinées tradition by Moebius, Bilal, and Druillet, and I downloaded the first Christin/Mézières collection for free from Amazon. On the whole it didn’t really feel at all like the story I read. Valerian was slightly older but more of a doofus; Laureline was younger but more cunning (and a redhead). The leads in this movie, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne possess all the personality of 1970s Sears underwear models. They’re supposed to be deeply, passionately in love, but they barely register as casual friends.
I expect a space opera movie to be a big dumb affair (and hopefully fun), but Besson is just dumb about the genre in a way that filmmakers haven’t been since the ‘80s or ‘90s. He clearly doesn’t understand the difference between the terms “intergalactic” and “interstellar,” he thinks constellations are the same as solar systems, and he’s under the impression that 700 million miles is a far distance in space. (It barely gets you past Jupiter.) I don’t really mind it if filmmakers flaunt the laws of physics for the sake of entertainment, but when it’s clear that they don’t even know what they’re flaunting, the results are just a self-indulgent wallow in CGI garbage.
And Besson really doesn’t seem to know how to write a story or develop characters. There are lots of moments in the movie that are supposed to be dramatic, or moving, or hilarious, but they just leave you thinking, “Well, that’s a thing that just happened.” Much of the dialogue is a kind of lost-in-translation word salad, and there are a lot of weird Johnny Bluejeans moments that come across as some sort of Francophone notion of what Americans think is cool or funny, but stop the action dead. Pointless conflicts are introduced, then dropped, apparently for the sake of “dramatic tension.”
Of course, this sort of thing worked fine in Fifth Element, because Besson was able to play his schtick off of Bruce Willis as the ultimate straight man, playing an amalgam of every action role he’d assayed for the previous decade. And Milla Jovovich was great, too, because she seemed to understand the inherent ridiculousness and melodrama of the story. (She is a deeply underrated comedienne, completely wasted by the Resident Evil franchise.) By contrast, DeHaan and Delevigne seem to think they’re in a very important movie about the power of love and the interconnectedness of all people and things, even when a CGI critter is pooping magic space pearls (this is a MAJOR PLOT POINT, you guys).
Still, when the movie really dumb, it gets better. There’s whole standalone episode crammed between the second and third acts that serves no real purpose but to showcase Rihanna (though she’s a CGI character most of the time) and put Delevigne in a pretty dress when she’s captured by some Alley Oop-type aliens. The big reveal is worthy of a classic episode of Futurama. And then it ends, Rihanna departs (she’s basically playing a mashup of Chris Tucker and Inva Muli’s Element characters here), and nobody ever mentions what happened ever again.
Oh yeah, about that dress. The comic strip has usually been called Valerian and Laureline, but this adaptation includes only half the title. It’s weird, when you consider all the digital ink spilled over gender representation in genre movies, that nobody’s complained that much about Laureline’s demotion from titular-character status. To be fair, most Americans aren’t familiar with the source material, and Delevigne does have some okay action sequences. But Valerian does seem to be presented as the hero, and the most memorable part of the movie is all about him rescuing a feminized Laureline from some nasty aliens. In the summer of Wonder Woman, this is really not cool. Not that DeHaan has any real sort of career as an action hero ahead of him.
To be honest, the whole thing feels hoary and out of date. I’m not sure who the hell it’s for. France? Apparently the future of France’s film industry is riding on its success, so let’s hope so, for their sake. China? It was financed in part by Chinese studios, but I didn’t see a lot of Asians in the movie. English speakers? Rihanna aside, there aren’t any big names in this thing, apart from Clive Owen as the bad guy, who in Besson tradition, yells a lot and is just a jerk. I didn’t even recognize Ethan Hawke as a picaresque space pimp. Herbie Hancock plays a hologram. One of the elfin space aliens sounds an awful lot like Cate Blanchett, though she’s not listed in the credits. The ending clearly leaves open the possibility of a sequel, though I’d settle for an Airtight Garage movie myself.
Did anything work? Well, you’re going to hear a lot about the virtuoso “Big Market” sequence, which involves Valerian going on a secret mission inside a bazaar set in a parallel dimension that can only be accessed through VR technology; in reality, the visitors are roaming aimlessly around a desert. Tres Baudrillaud! But it’s actually confusing and the rules feel inconsistent. The opening montage, set to “Space Oddity,” shows how humans and aliens came together to build the City of Thousand Planets, but like a lot of recent utopian SF it feels sadly untimely (and Bowie on the soundtrack just compounds the sadness). The production design is impressive, but it’s stuff we’ve seen before in at least a dozen other video games and movies, from nü-Trek to Mass Effect to Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy. (And like so many genre movies, too much of the production design is too bright and shiny, with no textures.) Besson tries to recreate the shocking city reveal from Fifth Element numerous times, but it’s just numbing.
I am disappointed, because as dopey as it is, I love The Fifth Element, and was hoping Valerian could recreate some of that magic. It was the product of a more optimistic time, when filmmakers assumed that technology was going to allow them to visualize anything — not realizing that a lot of what they’d be visualizing would be committee driven. Twenty years later, Valerian should be the apotheosis of that vision, but it feels like a dead end.
P.S. For a visionary movie experience, do see Dunkirk, preferably in IMAX or 70mm. It’s amazing.