Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
When I go to see a new movie, one of my greatest hopes is that I’ll get to see something new. If I wanted to watch, say, a sci-fi movie that simply copies whatever Star Wars, Blade Runner, or The Matrix did, I would just watch one of those movies instead. There is a lot that I’m willing to forgive in a movie that is able to excite and astound me with something that I’ve never seen before. The Fifth Element is a perfect example. The Fifth Element is a profoundly dumb movie, but its characters are so entertaining and its universe is so remarkable that I ended up not caring in the slightest. In fact, the movie was so bizarre and unique that the silliness and absurdity actually added to its appeal. Valerian is a more extreme version of The Fifth Element, it is a much dumber film with a much more remarkable universe. It isn’t as charming a film, and is weaker for it, but it is still a wildly entertaining movie for all the right and wrong reasons.
Based on the French sci-fi comics Valérian et Laureline, Valerian takes place in the 28th century on the monumental space station Alpha, where millions of alien species live together sharing their knowledge and cultures. It follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two special operatives charged with maintaining peace and order throughout the universe. While on a mission the partners uncover a mystery concerning an alien race of which they can find no record. After securing a Mül Converter, a small creature that can reproduce anything it eats, they return to Alpha and are charged with the protection of Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), who is responsible for the station’s security. Alpha, he says, has been infected by some unknown force and a summit has been called to discuss the crisis. The summit is interrupted by an attack and in the fight that ensues Filitt is kidnapped. Valerian and Laureline must therefore find and rescue their commander and work out what it is these mysterious people want.
Visually this film is on its own level. The attention to detail Bresson brought to Fifth Element is maximised here as we are taken on a mad ride through dozens of stunning settings complete with strange creatures, extravagant costumes, and hundreds of great blink-and-you-miss-it details within each frame. Oftentimes with sci-fi movies you can get the gist of the universe within the first 15 minutes, but the world in Valerian felt like one where there was always more to discover. As with Terry Gilliam’s films, this is one of those movies where I felt like I could barely keep up (in the best way possible) with all that was happening and all that was being shown. Some elements are given a proper spotlight so that they can be fully appreciated like the burlesque dance of the shape-shifter Bubble (Rihanna), the Big Market where the marketplace exists on two different planes of reality, and one of the opening scenes in which we learn about an entire alien race’s world and culture without a single line of dialogue from any earthly language spoken. Then there are some fleeting moments, as in one sequence where Valerian navigates several variable districts of Alpha in his pursuit of his kidnapped commander, which are no less stunning for being brief. I could re-watch this whole movie again on mute and still delight in all that the visuals have to offer.
And yet the movie is still so very dumb. The story is completely incoherent and the characters have no consistency. Valerian is a cocky happy-go-lucky maverick, except when he’s not. Laureline is his no-nonsense, cool and collected partner, except when she’s not. Dehaan delivers an unconvincing performance that comes across less as a brave, resourceful, cheeky but loveable scoundrel and more as a kid pretending to be Star Lord. Delevingne is pretty good half the time and pretty bland the other. The two have chemistry, which helps when it comes to pushing their predictable will they/won’t they love story, but Han and Leia they are not. In their mission together they stumble into side-plot after side-plot which have absolutely nothing to do with the issue pressing them. However entertaining it is to see Valerian fleeing alien gangsters while stuck between an organic and a virtual reality or watching an imprisoned Laureline being offered to the grossly gluttonous chief of a primitive tribe, at these points you just have to ask yourself “how did we get here?”
Still, what separates this movie from something like Jupiter Ascending is that no matter how stupid it got, I was never bored. I wouldn’t really call it a good movie in its own right; I’d say that half of it is good and the other half is so bad it’s good. There’s also a feeling of sincerity to this film. Good or bad, I believe that the director, writers and actors were all genuinely trying to create something unique and enjoyable and that effort does count for a lot. It may not have been a legitimately great film the way The Fifth Element was, but it was a lot of fun to watch and it showed me many things that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before (one highlight being a trio of duck-like aliens who complete each other’s sentences). Let’s put it this way: The Fifth Element was a great but dumb film. Valerian is an entertaining but dumb film. It’s not going to work for everyone and that’s perfectly understandable. But, if you manage your expectations with this film and are prepared not to take it seriously, you might be surprised by how good a time you’ll still end up having.