Review: Valerian: The City of a Thousand Planets
Luc Besson’s much-anticipated return to the sci-fi genre can only be compared to a Lush bath bomb: It’s expensive and incredibly pretty, but it fizzes and fizzles away, with its cost flowing down the drain, leaving me cold. Admittedly, I was excited for this so-called ‘space epic’, mostly due to my fondness for Besson’s earlier works The Professional and The Fifth Element which maintain statuses as cultural touchstones. However, both works are intrinsically linked to the contexts and time periods in which they were produced, enhanced by nostalgia.
It is an unequivocal fact that Valerian is a visual spectacle. Not unlike Avatar (which was also lacking in narrative substance), Valerian had a lengthy pre-production which awaited CGI technology advancement. The results are entirely unclockable – the visual effects are beyond exquisite and perform exceptionally, notably in non-verbal sequences. However, everything falls apart when the characters start talking.
For a film which demonstrates such potential for visual storytelling, especially through the opening sequence of the film, Valerian fails miserably through the reliance of dialogue and exposition as narrative components. I must also mention that some of the dialogue in this film is laughably bad.
The film’s two protagonists Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are introduced on equal footing, but the film steers towards Valerian as the central character, with his motivations driving the main plot. This is divergent from the source material (Valerian and Laureline) which is named for the two characters and their adventures. Valerian is inherently unlikeable, enhanced by the mismatched casting of Dane Dehaan who appears perpetually anaemic. He seems to be doing a sort of Han Solo impression but instead of rugged charm, he exudes douchiness (*douche chill*).
Dane Dehaan is by no means a bad actor, but he is incapable of leading a franchise film such as this one. The way in which the relationship between Valerian and Laureline is portrayed is somewhat troubling. Laureline is smart, funny and level headed – really well portrayed by Delevingne who was clearly having a good time on this project. But Laureline’s brilliance in entirely undercut by the fact that she puts up with Valerian’s disrespect and condescension. Yes, I understand that we meet them during a ‘tough time’ in their relationship, but it seems completely unbelievable that he would get away with such utter bullshit. Valerian mansplains to Laureline all over the galaxy and she is eventually reduced from sharing the title of the story (in the comic) to being a goal/ex-machina in a dress.
The failure of this film lies within Besson’s reluctance to embrace Laureline as a central or even equal player in the narrative. If the gender roles had been reversed and it was her mission/story, the film would have felt in keeping with this year’s release of female-centric films. And judging by her performance as Laureline, Cara Delevingne could have led this franchise whilst having fun.
I have heard this film defended as a ‘future cult classic’ (/FlimCast), comparing it to the subsequent popularity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. To that I say: Unlike Rocky Horror, Valerian gives audiences nothing to hold onto; except that in 500 years from now, capable women will still be putting up with men who treat them like shit.