I have a big soft spot for all things wacky and bizarre, and I enjoyed this colourful and wildly imaginative space fantasy from Luc Besson much more than I thought I would, after the so-so reviews. But if there was ever a movie killed by the horrendous casting choices, Valerian is surely it.
The opening sequence, playing out to the sound of David Bowie’s Space Oddity and chronicling the genesis of the titular city, is easily one of the best film prologues I’ve seen in a while. It starts off as a humble space station, but as the decades and centuries pass and handshakes are exchanged first between human nations and later different species, Alpha is transformed into a giant space metropolis, home to countless lifeforms from a thousand worlds. Then we get a second prologue, set on a candy-coloured alien planet populated by an iridescent humanoid race that’s basically Avatar on the Beach. Sure, the CGI environments may feel totally artificial, but it’s hard to complain when so much boundless imagination is thrown onscreen in front of you.
Once the story starts proper, the film unfortunately introduces its main characters, secret agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who have to save the city from a malevolent force blossoming at its core. It really wouldn’t have mattered that Valerian’s plot is flimsy and lurches all over the place with countless interludes, if only the movie had engaging characters to follow and care about, but both leads are woefully miscast. On paper, Valerian is a charming suave rogue with a reputation of a lady-killer, but as portrayed by DeHaan he’s more like a creepy geek failing miserably at impersonating Han Solo. On paper, Laureline is a spunky no-nonsense badass, but Delevigne’s lifeless line readings and blank pouts flatten the life out of her. The two have a running will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot, but you’d see more natural chemistry between two planks of wood and the would-be flirty/sexy dialogue goes down like a lead balloon.
That the movie still manages to be watchable for more than two hours, despite the gaping charisma-free black hole where its main characters should be, is then entirely due to its visual exuberance and sense of inspired silliness. I can never hate a movie that stops the story for a bonkers five-minute sequence in which Rihanna poledances as a shape-shifting prostitute, while space cowboy Ethan Hawke cackles at the piano. There’s an interdimensional space bazaar, jellyfish that feed on your memories, gargantuan sea monsters, and the world’s biggest hat. It makes just about any other fantasy film feel tame and conservative by comparison.
Valerian in the end was worth watching, but it’s frustrating to think that, with a couple of genuinely charming leads, it could have been a still flawed but delightful romp, instead of “see strictly for the visuals”.