It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.
The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.
The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.
No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.
Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.
All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.