I’ve probably said it before, but one of the big threats to modern blockbusters these days is the curse of being ‘ok’, where the major studios have honed the art of producing the sort of entertainment which feels good going down while being bland and homogenized enough to not leave any significant impression. But at this point in my life, spending the time and money to plan an evening out watching something mildly diverting is something that I increasingly find isn’t worth the effort. The price of that movie ticket could go towards a good book, for instance.
Luc Besson’s Valerian doesn’t have this sort of focus group fiat feel. It is bad in ways that, for instance, a Marvel movie would have sanded over. But as spectacle it’s also far more inventive and singular than those movies typically are. Admittedly, though, a big part of my goodwill towards it comes from its earnest desire to channel classic space opera, which is something you don’t see very often. Given that we are promised a constant stream of new Star Wars movies, while Marvel itself has been cranking out those Guardians of the Galaxy flicks. But while the original Star Wars was the product of a man who had read golden era sci-fi, modern Star Wars and its brethren are largely the product of people who have watched Star Wars. The only other film in recent memory to feel like an actual space opera was Jupiter Ascending, and I seem to be one of the five or six people who actually loved that movie. That, combined with how Valerian has tanked at the box office seems to be proof that my taste in popcorn cinema seems to be at complete loggerheads with what the moviegoing public wants.
The plot, set a few centuries in the future, is largely disposable conspiracy boilerplate nonsense that exists for the sake of propelling government agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) on a buddy cop adventure through Alpha, and impossibly large space station featuring several different biomes home to thousands of alien species. The script tries and fails to convince us that our protagonists have actual character arcs and internal conflicts, but for the most part, our attention is on the world. What I said about the Gork book more roughly applies to here: Valerian’s true virtue is how it doubles down on the potential its setting provides for taking us through some weird and exotic locales, all rendered with the baroque resplendence of a Final Fantasy game.
Sprinkled throughout are some bravura set pieces – in particular, a chase scene that unfolds simultaneously across two overlapping realities (it makes more sense in execution) is the most smart and inventive I’ve seen since Fury Road from a couple years ago. There’s almost no down time when it comes to visually arresting things happening, although things do run out of steam a bit towards the end. It’s really the sort of garishly expensive spectacle that George Lucas was aiming for with his prequel trilogy, and functions as one of the best apologia for 3D.
Again, things fall flat when it comes to character. DeHaan looks and feels like a sullen anime protagonist while the script seems to call for the arrogant swagger of a young Harrison Ford. Delevigne has some great reaction faces, but Valerian overall lacks the goofy charm of Besson’s other space opera flick, The Fifth Element.
But, honestly, it does what I want from a big, dumb summer movie. It brought the giddy joy that only sci-fi pulp can bring. Which doesn’t seem to be what a lot of other people want, so I guess I’m waiting until at least 2019 for something this interesting to pop back into theatres again. Perhaps I’ll have to check out the comics.