Director Luc Besson’s Latest Space Oddity is a CGI Black Hole


Filmgoers could scarcely blame a filmmaker at work on a space adventure for copping Star Wars. But copping the Star Wars prequels? That same crowd of filmgoers may suddenly not be so understanding.

Luc Besson, for whatever reason, gets a lot of leeway when he serves up his occasional half-baked cosmic tripe like the juvenile The Fifth Element and even the heady-to-a-fault Lucy. The lingering defense for the former, even now, twenty years later, is that Besson wrote it when he was only sixteen years old. To which I’ve replied, “It sure plays like a sixteen year old wrote it!” In the St. Louis Post Dispatch, then-film critic Harper Barnes opened his final regular review for the paper with the line, “Give a Frenchman $90 million to make a movie, and he’ll just spend it all on sets and costumes.” Would that sort of thing fly today? Of course not, this is 2017. Today, they give the Frenchman $160 million to spend on sets and costumes.

The imaginative 3D space-scapes and odd alien wildlife are, by far, the greatest strength of Valerian, and the only strong reason to see it.

This time, Besson was able to actually adapt the source material that inspired so much of The Fifth Element. The French sci-fi comic book Valérian et Laureline created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières launched in 1967 and wrapped up in 2010. Like John Carter before it, Valérian is commonly cited as a creative inspiration for Star Wars and so many other such space adventures. Unfortunately, also like John Carter before it, it’s long-in-coming big screen adaptation is a massively indulgent panoply of digitally rendered cosmic spectacle in search of a shred of depth.

Valerian gets off to a very promising start. Footage of cordial international space station meet ups, beginning with the late 1960s and advancing far further into the future, are accompanied by the dulcet tones of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The tech gets cooler and more streamlined, the visitors become more and more intergalactic. This wordless prologue is as good as Valerian ever gets.

Some aliens.

Cut to hundreds of years even farther into the future. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of the 24 1/2th century, though Duck Dodgers is nowhere to be seen. We spend the first ten or so minutes on a weirdly exotic alien sea shell world where the nubile young females wear super tiny translucent tops and stretch their arms a lot. Things don’t go well for this tranquil, peace-loving race, which leads to an abrupt psychic alert to our hero, Valerian. Unaccustomed to this sort of thing, he and his partner Laureline are soon on the case, and off to the bustling City of a Thousand Planets. (Which is gigantic brain-shaped mecha-turd floating in space.)

This would be a good time to mention that Valerian and Laureline are space-age secret agents, working as a pair. It’s quickly apparent that their relationship has surpassed the realm of purely professional. It’s established that prior to falling for Laureline, Valerian was quite the ladies man in the field. This amorous quality, coupled with the fantastical gadgets these two operate with (trans-dimensional glasses and thieving tools, form-fitting space armor, etc.) more accurately lands this film in James Bond territory rather than Star Wars. Except, our hero announces he’s done with his womanizing ways at very beginning, right before he proposes marriage to Laureline. As skeptical as she is, he spends the rest of the movie trying to win her over to be his wife. His proclamation of her one-in-a-googleplex specialness is something we’ll just have to trust him about. As morally upstanding as this dynamic is, the utter toothlessness of it all sure feels… boring.

Following our screening, there was chatter about the film’s implementation of millennial this and millennial that. These observations stemmed completely from the performances of the two young leads, Dane Dehann as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. But if ever there was a film that best not be evaluated on its acting merit, it’s this one. Dehann, quite good elsewhere in his career, is a dull block of wood here. Delevingne simply seems angry all the time, her performance consisting of one long sustained eye-roll. If there is millennial nonchalance on display, it goes no deeper than this thoroughly non engaging pair. For my money, the film is far more steeped in traditional attitudes and gender interests, dating way farther back than even 1967. Is there one woman around uninterested in shopping, romance and being sexy for the guys? Is one man not some sort of toolish paramilitary tech-head? Delevingne spins her cliched girly dialogue with clunky irony, but the lines remain the lines.

The pop star Rihanna turns up as a shape shifting performer called Bubble. In actuality, she’s a blue squid with human lips, but for much of the time, she opts for the form of a Bob Fosse chorus girl. Ethan Hawk, in an amped up extended cameo, is the salivating club owner who’s putting her on stage. It’s all a sexy distraction from both the plot and Valerian’s quest in the Red Light portion of a Vegas-y cosmic cave. Apparently the blue opera singer from The Fifth Element was booked elsewhere.

Rihanna as Bubble the performer.

The imaginative 3D space-scapes and odd alien wildlife are, by far, the greatest strength of Valerian, and the only strong reason to see it. It is nice to see top tier visual effects work being applied to a fresh screen property. That said, Besson has rendered a pretty run-of-the-mill comic book/sci-fi adaptation, one that is (ironically, considering its own futuristic timeframe) almost completely mired in the sub genre’s past. There’s sadly virtually nothing fresh amid Valerian‘s color and clatter, with both its shortcomings and strong points the same as so many forgettable comic book one-offs of twenty years ago. Hollow and annoying performances, a by-the-numbers story with a who-cares villain, all decked out thickly in eye-candy spectacle. Valerian is not far removed from the likes of Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, or the Lost in Space or Wild Wild West movies.

I suppose in the greater scheme, a movie based on what a sixteen year old Luc Besson read is preferable to one that sixteen year old Luc Besson wrote. Like The Fifth Element, Valerian ain’t the new Star Wars. For all the criticism that the Star Wars prequels take, those films contained depth and scope amid their computer animated worlds. Valerian falls short of that. It’s not even the new James Bond or Duck Dodgers, not by several light years. Let’s hope next time for better luck, Luc. As for this time… like a wise alien once said, “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…”