In 1997, French director Luc Besson (Leon) surprised the world with his big budget, non-hollywood sci-fi extravanza The Fifth Element; a destined-to-be-cult-classic Euro-flavoured fantasy with a zany sense of humour, crazy fashion sense and ton of invention that stood out from its 90s peers. 20 years later, with a budget equal to half the GDP of France, Besson returns to space opera to deliver an eye-meltingly spectacular-looking galactic adventure that dwarfs its predecessor in scale and vision, as well as exploiting the visuals and aesthetics of recent blockbusters such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar and Jupiter Ascending (plus a dash of Mass Effect).
It begins with a stupendous opening sequence, charting future human space progress with a 'Star Trek Enterprise' style montage, growing into a Babylon 5 style diplomatic melting pot; all set beautifully to David Bowie's Space Oddity. The movie that follows almost delivers on that promise; with tons of imagination and quirky intergalactic spectacle, while keeping The Fifth Element's playful inventiveness and fun. Clever technology, weird and wonderful environments and a vast space megatropolis filled with bizarre aliens, all to Alexandre Desplat's impressive sci-fi score, are built (rather like the space station itself) around a reasonably decent plot. The action scenes are inventive and exciting, and there are plenty of cameos to spice things up.
Unfortunately... a miscast lead, a stupefyingly awful script, a forced romance, and tons of superflous scenes of Besson's over-indulgence almost undo the whole enterprise. For starters, far too much emphasis is placed on the central relationship between Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne). It's cliche, irritating, and unconvincing; and essentially boils down to her constantly lecturing him about committment. We aren't really given any background on their characters, their roles, their training, or their history; we're simply told they're in love. Dane Dehaan in particular is miscast and badly written. He's essentially presented to us as a hotshot womansier, Han Solo crossed with Maverick, who's also the galaxy's toughest badass. Rarely has there been such a mismatch between character description and actor. It simply doesn't convince.
It doesn't help either that both Valerian and Laureline have 'attitudes' rather than characters, and the attitude gets old quickly. As an intergalactic Mr & Mrs Smith, they are experts at everything and unafraid of any situation, so there is no drama whatsoever. They're invincible Mary and Gary Sues that strut around the universe without any sense of danger. It's a shame, as Cara Delevigne is actually rather good in spite of her material; she arguably fares better here than her more accomplished co-star. It's also good that she's presented as his equal (despite not being named in the title).
Structurally also, the film is a sprawl with lots of imagery and 'stuff happening' crammed into its runtime. I get the feeling Besson let the budget go to his head and indulged himself at every opportunity. Large sections of the film, especially in the second half, are completely redundant and could have been excised from the film entirely. And for such and imaginative universe, Besson also plays things surprisingly straight. There were very few laughs. Yet at the same time it's tonally quite variable, so one is never sure whether to take it seriously or not. And without a cheeky sense of humour, the dire script is often too much for many of the actors to handle. Clive Owen is a particular casualty, deliviering one of the worse performances of his career.
His character is important to the main story, the denouement of which arrives with a lot of expository dialogue (a more skilled director would have explained things with flashbacks alone). Yet so cluttered is the narrative that the audience frankly need a bit of a refresher- especially after an overlong sequence involving bug-eyed aliens (and a striking but superfluous Rhianna cameo).
There are also unanswered questions; for example who are the aliens being fought in the big space battle? We aren't told. Its also not particularly clear where Alpha is supposed to be located. We are told at one point that Alpha station has travelled for "700 million miles". That's not even as far away as Saturn, which doesn't mesh with the idea that this place is the central hub of the galaxy (if not the universe). Is something amiss? or was it just too hard for the scriptwriter to use google?
Esssentially then, Valerian is a mixed experience: exhilarating and exasperating in roughly equal measure. When my eyes weren't out on stalks, they were rolling into my head like a fruit machine. This really stands or falls on how much nonsense one is prepared to tolerate in order to enjoy the rich fantasy it offers. However the fact that I want to see this again would indicate that the balance tips into the postive scale. Perhaps, like its predecessor The Fifth Element, this needs a decade or two to sink in. Perhaps, by 2037, we will look on this as a quirky classic- maybe watching it aboard an orbiting space station alongside bemused aliens.