VALERIAN (Directed by Luc Besson, 137 min., USA, 2017)
BY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY Going into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I really hoped it was going to be excellent. Though I have never read Valérian et Laureline, the French graphic novel that provides the material for the film, I was impressed by director Luc Besson’s credits (Leon: The Professional, The 5th Element, Taken, Lucy, etc.). I love science fiction movies and detective movies, so the trailers seemed to promise a film that very rarely gets made. I mean, space police, alien worlds, political intrigue, what’s not to love? The opening sequence, soundtracked by Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” even got my hopes up, but the moment I saw pale, pasty, college-freshman-looking Major Valerian and heard him speak, I knew I was not going to be satisfied. No Rick Deckard, this one. Not even Neo, though he delivers his lines with marginally more spunk than Keanu Reeves would on ketamine. Oh well. I leaned back in my chair and hugged the popcorn bowl tighter. I was going to need it.
I don’t want to seem unduly rough, because so much of this could have been a really great movie, so I’m going to start first with what I liked. This is a visually incredible film, with beautiful renderings of alien worlds and species. If you can just sit back and let the colors and images wash over you, you’ll have a good time. There are extra-dimensional cities, a space-station to rival Mass Effect’s Citadel, a planet inside a spaceship, and much more. The colors are warm, bright, and welcoming. Some of the performances from minor characters are memorable, like Rihanna’s appearance as shape-changing erotic dancer Bubble, or Alain Chabat as Bob the Pirate. The trouble is, Valerian has to rely on its minor characters in sequences tangential to the main plot, because the acting and writing are otherwise pretty lame.
Where can I even begin on this? The flirting, unprofessional relationship between the two leads is cliched, and too awkward to seem entirely genuine. And how did two seeming-teenagers get to be officers in the federal police force? They certainly don’t seem mature and hardened enough to be running top-secret operations. They make jokes at moments that belie the seriousness of their situations, something that works in comics, but is harder to pull off in movies. Valerian and Laureline have a few defining traits, most of them annoying, but overall seem to change values as the plot dictates. They’re about one step up from Grecian masks.
More’s the pity, too, because if you break down Valerian, you’ll find the bones of a great movie. As an analogue to our own time, Valerian tells us that colonized peoples deserve to be allowed to determine their own futures, and not be subject to the whims of imperialists. Valerian tells us that marginalized, transient people deserve identities, jobs, and a chance of happiness. There is an undercurrent of whitewashing and white-man’s-burden (700 years in the future, and all the military leaders are still white? Really?), but I believe this movie has a good heart. It wants us to be better than we are, as I wanted it to be better than it was. Oh well. Time to read the graphic novel.