– By J.W. Fox –
Luc Besson is on a pretty serious cold streak. Since The Fifth Element, his director credits have been underwhelming. The most recent high profile film, Lucy, was a total flop. He’s written a few quality screenplays including all three Taken movies and Colombiana, but nothing to match his 90s success. Sadly, Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets joins his growing list of bombs.
Before tearing it down I will offer up a few “pros” for the movie. Valerian is a visual marvel. The settings, inter-dimensional action sequences and costuming are all top-notch. The opening sequence and bazaar scene in particular were awesome. Rihanna’s burlesque was also entertaining.
Some good pieces, but not enough to assemble a whole quality movie. Instead of writing a full review bashing the movie as a whole, I decided to follow Paulie’s format and simply make a list of everything wrong with Valerian.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Avatar Ripoff: Another Dances With Wolves in Space
The script for Valerian was written before the release of Avatar. After seeing it, Besson was worried that it was too similar to his own idea. So he rewrote his script and worked hard to ensure the highest level special effects were deployed. Yet even with the script rewrite, the similarities to Avatar are too big to ignore.
The aliens of planet Mül are very similar to the Na’vi. Visually, they have an almost identical body, the exception being paler skin. They live in a beach paradise gathering an insanely valuable resource from a creature that can replicate anything it eats. A primitive race of noble savages, a valuable resource, and an attempted genocide by the human race. Sound familiar?
For Luc Besson to draw from the Dances With Wolves well like so many before him is disappointing.
Valerian is built on the relationship of two characters: Valerian and Laureline, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. Their casting turned out to be a big mistake. Their chemistry wasn’t just bad, it was excruciating. Watching the two flirt with one another was utterly painful. DeHaan plays the rogue, a different woman in every port, kind of guy. Yet, he is a government agent who claims to be dutiful to his oaths. His affection for his longtime partner Laureline is obvious from the start, yet she acts like she just met him. Their dialogue is confusing given that we are told they’ve been partners for years.
Valerian is a summer action movie, so the acting expectations aren’t that difficult to meet or exceed. Yet, Delevingne’s inability to emote was inexcusable. She managed to go through the whole movie with only three expressions (bored, angry and surprised) and the same flat tone of voice. She looks, acts, and talks like a spoiled teen annoyed at all the interest from the boys. There are dozens of young actresses out there who could have done better.
Valerian Character a Mess of Contradictions
In terms of character development, Valerian is a serious failure. The movie builds him up as a young James Bond, a sexy secret agent with a way with women. He is also that classic rogue officer who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results. Valerian also spends a good portion of the movie trying to prove his ability to commit to Laureline. Naturally, he gets an opportunity save her from a bunch of ugly aliens who planned to eat her brains.
At the end of the movie, they decide to throw all of that away. At the climax, he declares to Laureline he is a soldier and must do his duty even if he disagrees with it…wait, what?
Is he a dutiful soldier or a loose cannon? Is he a James Bond womanizer or a man committed to a single woman? He seems to be everything at once.
Trite Political Messaging
Like other Avatar-like movies, Valerian has a transparent anti-colonial, anti-war, and to some extent, anti-Trump message.
Granted, no one conquers planet Mül or exploits their resources. However, the imagery of a primitive race being caught in the middle of a high-tech war is similar from the “native” perspective. The movie spends five minutes convincing you the Mül aliens are pure, compassionate, happy, and deserving of their paradise. Then those advanced, evil humans blow up their planet just to win a battle.
There is also a reference to immigration policy in the city of Alpha, which felt like it a random jab at Trump. Never mind that Alpha is supposed to be this UN style station governed by a council of different races. Besson obviously intended for the humans to be the race really in charge, and we are awful. It is similar to the US role in the UN, being the largest contributor and most powerful member. It may be an international body but one member has an enormous, disproportionate amount of pull.
In the end, the movie is an indirect criticism of America, our heavy-handedness and our unfairly powerful role within the international system. Nothing wrong with the message, except Hollywood has been sending that message for decades through countless movies and TV shows. Seriously, Luc, at least try to be original!
Rihanna Burlesque Show Detour
In the middle of the movie, Valerian must head toward a real seedy part of Alpha to find help. There is a contact in a small burlesque theater, so sits through a show put on by Rihanna before asking for her assistance. The whole journey into the red district and the Rihanna show is a plot detour lasting almost 20 minutes. It had nothing to do with the main conflict.
It was as if Besson wanted to kick it up a notch by installing a Rihanna music video in his movie. Not a good choice.
Should Have Been PG
The casting, dialogue, plot, and utterly transparent messaging are ideal for a younger audience. DeHaan (31) and Delevingne (25) both look like teenagers, which was probably what the casting people were going for in selecting them. Their cringe worthy dialogue might even work for those in the early to mid-teens.
There is not much violence, blood, or swearing in Valerian, so it could easily get a PG rating with a few minor tweaks. Besson should have seriously considered this instead of aiming for a broader demographic.
Miscellaneous Plot Holes
Just a few minor plot problems that bothered me:
- Alpha is supposed to be a UN-style space station governed by a multi-race council. Yet the entire security apparatus is human. Human agents are able to smash through the station with impunity, something that would cause a massive international incident if done in neutral territory.
- Besson knows very little about the military. Valerian and Laureline are given ranks (major and sergeant), which means he vastly outranks her. Why? We don’t know. They do not operate as soldiers but rather intelligence agents or spec ops. Clive Owen is the senior officer on Alpha and is given the rank commander. After his kidnapping, his successor is a general. A general will always outrank a commander. Why Owen’s character is at the top of the hierarchy is a mystery.
- A character referred to as minister acts as a coms officer or courier between Valerian and the commander. A minister is usually a political office that sits above the military chain of command. They certainly do not get involved in individual ops. It’s like a Secretary of Defense acting like a courier between units on the battlefield.
- At the end of the movie, the Mül ship rips through Alpha during its escape, which had to have killed thousands. No one seems to notice or care.
- A cute chubby lizard that poops out dozens of anything it eats? Really?
With some very modest tweaks, Valerian might have worked as a PG movie marketed towards kids. The narrower demographic lowers its potential box office sales, which is probably why this film was marketed as a broad-appeal summer action movie. It would still have to overcome the unoriginal script and awful onscreen chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne, but at least it would have had a chance.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.