Luc Besson’s ‘Valerian’ is a visually stunning disappointment

Luc Besson returned to theaters last week with his first English-language film since 2014’s Lucy. After being away for three years, the Leon: the Professional director finally graced our screens with his long-awaited, visual powerhouse of a blockbuster, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (poster to the left:

Starring Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan in leading roles, Valerian introduces viewers to a new world, Alpha, an intellectual, cultural polyhedron comprising thousands of diverse species from different corners of the universe. Realising Alpha is endangered by a mysterious ‘tumour’ of sorts in its central area, Commander Arun Flitt (Clive Owen) enlists the help of two of the universe’s top FBI operatives, Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne). In addition to a host of supporting actors and actresses, the film also features token performances from singer Rihanna and fan-favourite Ethan Hawke.

As an ensemble, the cast delivers mediocre performances at best. The chemistry between the two leads is essentially presented to the viewer on a golden platter, thus eliminating the build-up that warrants the connection a viewer yields to such a relationship dynamic. This is made even worse by the heavily-clichéd script that attends to the film. The interactions between Delevingne and DeHaan are so unbearably forced that it disrupts the flow of the film. Enter many, many eye-rolls.

DeHaan and Delevingne both deliver performances that satisfy the basic requirements of their roles, but fail to surpass them in any way. DeHaan’s Valerian is a type-cast, sarcastic, immature cop, and Delevingne’s Laureline – albeit a noted departure from her usual work and a testament to the actress’ potential – still doesn’t offer her much substance. In essence, both characters fester an inorganic sense of growth and understanding when in reality they both fall rather flat. This is especially a shame for Delevingne, whose character is the only major female character in the film, notwithstanding Rihanna’s 15 minutes of screentime. Though Laureline (thankfully) isn’t the damsel in distress, it’s very difficult to ignore the fact that Valerian is otherwise entirely led by a male cast, and much can be said of the wrongfulness of that in 2017.

In looking at Valerian, one must consider the form in which it is presented. From the title alone, one can assume that the plan is to turn Valerian into a franchise, but potential to do so goes awry because of the lack of, not an engaging story for this particular installment per se (though the storyline is not quite one to indulge in), but the lack of context and world-building. Think back to cinema’s most recognised space saga, Star Wars. While each film had its own plot, there was a general understanding established about the political air of the film’s world (this is Star Wars’ case specifically, of course) – a history, if you will. And that’s what Valerian ultimately fails at: establishing its world and attending narrative. The viewer is thrown into its (admittedly beautiful) mess without a memo. As it was made, there was nothing narrative about the City of a Thousand Planets that demanded I return to it should sequels be produced. Perhaps some (read: a lot) of the nearly 140 minute run could have been employed in service of narrative building as opposed to one-shot, dead-end subplots (sorry, Riri).

Valerian‘s downfall lies in its greatest merit: the visuals. A lot can be picked and prodded at about it, but the film is, without a doubt, a visual marvel. Start to finish, Besson’s vision is a captivating and stunning tour de force. The opening of the film will leave viewers in awe and somewhat unconscious of the on-going plot. And this adds to Valerian’s aforementioned dilemma: the quality of the visuals is so great that it renders every other aspect of the film – aspects that are already questionable – completely forgettable. That being said, I suspect it might be great enough to raise Valerian from its rubble come awards season.

While Luc Besson’s Valerian is a must-watch for the technologically-inclined, there’s not much else in the film to get excited about. Should there be plans to make a sequel (doubtful, considering its box office flop), it can only be a hit if an equal amount of attention is given to the narrative. The visuals – essential to any space adventure – are there. Your move, Besson.

Rating: 40/100

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