Nobody was going to give this movie a chance because we (America) aren’t familiar with the source material that this Sci-Fi Epic is based on. Valerian is a long-running series of Sci-Fi comics in France from 1967 to 2010. Writer-Director Luc Besson took this cinematic endeavor under his wings because he grew up reading the comics and was a huge fan of the franchise, which is popular in Europe but never quite took hold across the ocean.
Luc Besson is perhaps best known for giving us The Fifth Element, which also was considered a commercial flop in theaters until it grew legs upon release to home video, and is now widely considered to be a classic. Valerian may be destined to the same fate, although it certainly lacks some of the charms that Besson’s previous hit held. Perhaps it’s just the difference in the late 90s grungy CG vs today’s high-level effects, but I think it comes down more to differences in casting and acting performance.
The movie is set in a late stage of the comic series – an intentional move after a lot of backstories has already been created to create a compelling action-filled film for audiences unfamiliar with the Valerian saga (think Star Wars dropping us in at Episode 4 instead of going in chronological order). Set in the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a duo of special operatives tasked with keeping human affairs and relations intact alongside the multitude of other sentient beings that co-exist across the galaxy. The mission takes them to Alpha, a conglomerate space station that has grown exponentially to serve as a galactic ‘united nations’ over centuries, nicknamed “The City of A Thousand Planets”. A sacred, world-building device has gone missing and must be recovered before it falls into the wrong hands. Throughout the chase to regain possession of the ‘pearl’, the duo stumbles through the underworld of the station, meeting new friends, making new enemies, and revealing deep-seated rifts of bigotry and mistrust between humankind and other species. It turns out that the sides aren’t quite as cut and dry as they were made out to be in the beginning – Valerian and Laureline will have to choose between duty and honor.
Visually, this movie was incredible. Beautiful vistas, realistic technologies, fantastic alien designs, and concepts. The entire setting had a distinct “lived-in but still futuristic” feel. Luc Besson created a fun, colorful, and frantic future fraught with danger but also full of whimsy that helps drive the story and emphasize the wondrous properties of the ‘Alpha’ station and its many diverse inhabitants.
Where Valerian fell short was in the acting and storytelling departments respectively. I personally didn’t hate the acting, but Cara Delevingne & Dane DeHaan are relatively new actors and haven’t really found an audience in Hollywood yet. They are paired as Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, both partners in fighting crime and corruption for the Human Federation as well as love. Rhianna has a gem of a role as the shapeshifting and seductive alien, Bubble. The movie is playful and silly but lacks some teeth when it comes to making a statement. There are a lot of good veins to tap in the story – government corruption, the covering up of genocide and collateral damage of galactic warfare, the need for empathy and understanding, a strained dynamic between serial dater Valerian and Laureline’s desire to be something more than his latest ‘girl’ – but somehow the film just doesn’t seem to cash in on some emotional checks it writes.
It’s a stunning visual experience, with some holes in the story and some soft acting from the lead roles. I would love to see more from the franchise, but thanks to the lackluster response from audiences, this story is all but over – which is a shame.