I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stunning chasm between the quality of the visuals of a movie and the dreadful script tying it together. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a gorgeous film with ambitious action sequences that can keep a frenetic pass without looking choppy or rushed. It’s also got a plodding, boring script completely devoid of narrative or emotional nuance. At its peak Valerian is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before— and in its valleys is like a Mad Libs version of Avatar and The Matrix.
The big action sequences in Valerian are stunning feats of direction. There’s an action sequence where many of the characters involved are in multiple dimensions at once affecting what they can and can’t interact with. There’s a suspense beat, a chase, and then several bits leading to another chase all in this multi-leveled reality bending circumstance. Some characters integral to the operation don’t ever see or interact with the actual sequence. It’s dizzying in all the best ways. There’s also a chase scene that goes through all the different parts of this elaborate space station with dozens of alien races and their unique habitats that would have been the best sequence in every science fiction movie I loved as a child. Luc Besson does an outstanding job framing these sequences and the effects team really outdoes themselves. I don’t know how many of these alien races or habitats come from the source material, but it all looks tremendous.
It’s a struggle to praise the directing in Valerian when the acting is so terrible. Dane DeHaan performs like he’s doing an impression of mid-90s Keanu Reeves and not a terribly flattering one. He has the same flat delivery no matter what he’s trying to say. He starts the movie with a declaration of love and it sounds like he’s barely awake trying to figure out what toppings he would like on a pizza. I’ve never DeHaan impress me in a role and I’m starting to wonder what the casting directors of the world see in him that I don’t. No one else in the cast is doing good work either. Clive Owen is wooden, Rihanna was better in Home, and Cara Delevigne is acting like she can never remember the emotional tone of the last thing she said and has to guess for the next line at random. It’s like everyone involved in the production was so invested in the effects they couldn’t be bothered to care about the people.
The script is also quite bad. The story takes forever to get going and it always feels like key pieces of information are kept out of the characters hands not because it makes sense in the universe but because otherwise the whole thing would take 30 minutes to resolve. The love story seems tacked on and only moves forward because they have Valerian and Laureline tell us it does and not because we see them do anything to move closer together. I suppose I could accept that they’re going through a lot but this is their job, they must be in harrowing situations all the time. There’s also a healthy dose of the kind of noble savage bullshit that I’m sure was all the rage in France in the 60s when this comic started publication but feels terribly tone deaf in 2017. Even beside that the dialogue is 80% dry exposition delivered with the cadence of someone bored of being there. Every time someone talks in Valerian the experience gets worse and worse.
It would be amazing to find out something like Valerian syncs up perfectly with a famous album or something because it would be nice to watch the movie again without having to listen to any of these characters talk. I want people to see this film, it’s so fun to watch when it’s on top of its game. Unfortunately it’s just as terrible when it isn’t. Valerian is a film that should be watched in a theater, on a big screen, but only by people who paid to see another film and have sneaked in with good headphones and a podcast on or something. This movie is a technical demo for what good effects people and cinematographers should do, and a cautionary tale for writers and actors. Study hard, film students and drama majors— or else you could end up making a film like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and be trapped forever in pretty nonsense.