Starring: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Clive Owen
Director: Luc Besson
Running Time: 137 mins
Synopsis: In the 28th Century federation agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) are on a confidential mission to retrieve a mysterious object. This mission takes them to the city Alpha, a mega structure made up of a thousand species from around the universe. Soon they are battling forces far greater than themselves and a fight for the very heart of the city begins.
There is much to be said about the proclivities of Luc Besson. The European auteur has his issues with thin storytelling, clunky dialogue and a tendency to get a little carried away with his unique sensibilities, but the French director always, always brings a deep passion for the universes he is creating. Passion is an unspoken facet of moviemaking that all too often is lacking in favour of franchise building and a quick pay cheque. Valerian is dripping in overwhelming passion, in no small part due to how major an effect it had on a young Besson. Unknown over in these parts but a huge cultural hit in his home country, Valerian & Laureline is a long running graphic novel series hailing from Pierre Christin centring on 2 space agents in the 28th Century. Besson found himself deeply invested in this grand space opera and has been attempting a filmic version for some time. Only now with the advances in CGI and the considerable clout he carries, not to mention the $210 million price tag, can Valerian be brought to the screen.
Besson establishes this dense new universe and proves his detailed affection for the project right from the off. Two prologue scenes boldly and efficiently sketching out all we need to know. The first beautifully tackles the creation of Alpha, a small space station that grows exponentially over the centuries as we witness ever more outlandish alien species join the ranks of this diverse utopia. Largely wordless and chock full of little nuances to the intriguing menagerie of space creatures. Soon after we leap forward into the present day (well the 28th Century present) and meet one particular species. Another dialogue free sequence, it establishes an entire culture right down to the alien dialect they use. Realised with some stunning vibrant visuals, the sequence turns horrific and manages to elicit some primal emotions as we witness the demise of an innocent civilisation. It is a ballsy beginning, managing to forgo the cinematic conventions of thick exposition in favour of purely visual storytelling and quite possibly the best opening of a film this year.
Fortunately Besson, always an energetic filmmaker, keeps the pace going, introducing us to the two heroes of the tale. No time is wasted before an extended set-piece kicks the plot into gear whilst also showing off the insane roster of alien creatures Besson has realised. A mixture of puppetry and computer effects, these aliens give the intergalactic marketplace a tangible believability, the setting chock full of unique little details that no one could see it all on first viewing. On the hunt for a mysterious Mcguffin, Valerian and Laureline are clearly very capable and talented at their jobs but Besson makes one very odd decision in their relationship. Valerian is infatuated with Laureline, but rather than build the inevitable romance Besson has Valerian confess his love to her from the very first scene. Laureline rejects his advances but it is clear there is a warm affection between them, however in showing this relationship after they’ve already been working together for a while there is a lack of audience connection to their romance. It leavens their relationship with an odd distance, helped along by the lack of chemistry between them. Cara Delevinge proves her move from modelling to performer was a good one, gracing Laureline with a feisty, formidable independence alongside a loving nature towards those she encounters.
It is Dane DeHaan where the issues lie. Valerian written with a swaggering confidence and heroic machismo, yet given to a performer more comfortable playing the wiry outcast. DeHaan’s soft voice, pale complexion and sullen expression feeling pained when forced to act out the cocky smirking braggadocio the character requires. The so-called banter between him and Laureline feeling strained, clunky and lacking in any sense of spark. This wouldn’t be a problem if the movie continued the energy shown in its first hour throughout, the relationship background to the central action. Besson, though, starts to make their love tribulations more integral to the film, and stopping the film dead in the process.
This also brings us back around to the previously mentioned passion. Luc Besson is so in love with this world (he compiled massive dossiers for all the creatures featured) and realises it with such vibrancy but whereas the opening hour blends the forward motion of the plot into the melting pot of colourful characters, the latter half dovetails off from the story just so we can see different facets of his world. Valerian is lost during battle forcing Laureline to search for him, no sooner has she found him than she herself goes missing causing Valerian to hunt for her. It is childishly simple storytelling, robbing the film of all momentum. Like the rest of the movie it offers Besson to conjure some more visual poetry, notably in the inclusion of Rihanna as a shape shifting dancer. Her introductory scene loaded with sultry sexiness and inspired effects work. Even still all of this could have been easily removed and the film would have still worked. There is nothing wrong with a filmmaker showing off the dimensions of his new playground, but it should not come at the expense of the storytelling.
These detours also rob the films finale of any sense of dramatic tension, having left the central plotline to visit said detours you lose the emotional thrust that attempts to tie things together. The lack of a real villain, outside of Clive Owen’s desperate thinly written general, removes any possibility of a rousing final battle, leaving us with an airless CGI fight scene. Besson once again struggles with cogent story writing and his penchant for blunt dialogue is prevalent as always.
But still we return to that passion again, and it is hard to stay mad at a film rife with originality. At a stretched 137 min runtime you can never feel bored, your eyes blessed with evermore outlandish and colourful images. Valerian a triumph of brightly lit, flawless CGI. Besson choreographing some neatly thrilling action set-pieces, as well as being the first filmmaker since James Cameron to understand how 3D should be utilised. Valerian also contains that token Besson weirdness, a surreal edge skirting the borders of the film which, unlike some of his other work, does not outweigh the central conceit. It’s just a pity in all that outpouring of passion and design he could not donate some of that energy to the simple things such as story and script.
Verdict: A sumptuous visual treat, with a universe rich in detail and vibrancy. Sadly Valerian loses its way after an energetic first half in a sea of leaden detours, weak character dynamics and one half of a lead duo who does not belong.