REVIEW – Valerian is the city of a thousand visual astonishments

The writing isn’t the greatest, and lead actor Dane DeHaan looks like he could use a nap, but Luc Besson’s latest visual feast is a grand old time.

Would you believe Valerian et Laureline began publishing in 1967? (It stopped publishing in 2010.) Nearly fifty years later, this comic is getting a movie treatment – and it’s actually not bad.

(Sidebar: I haven’t read the comics; what drew me to the film before I went to watch it was the music – which is done by the incredible Alexandre Desplat. I’m not sure if he put it together, but the trailer makes use of an orchestral arrangement taken from either ‘Pastime Paradise’ (Stevie Wonder) or ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ (Coolio). Take your pick, though The A.V. Club is convinced it’s Gangsta’s Paradise. All I know is it’s definitely not ‘Amish Paradise.’)

Starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, Valerian follows two government agents responsible for guarding space and time. DeHaan’s version of Major Valerian is arguably not so humble, he’s a tad smug – but his heart is in the right place. Sergeant Laureline is smart, quick and sometimes sassy. Also starring in the film: Clive Owen as Arün Filitt, who is the duo’s commander, and Rihanna as Bubble, a shape-shifting entertainer. Elizabeth Debicki, Ethan Hawke and John Goodman also make brief appearances in this decent blend of space opera and science fiction.

Luc Besson, who is obsessed with the Valerian comics, directed this film and also wrote the screenplay for it. You may also know Besson from other projects, like The Fifth Element (a must watch!), Lucy, (don’t watch) and Nikita (yes please). What also impresses me is that Besson independently crowdsourced and personally funded Valerian,  making it the most expensive independent film ever made. The budget is sitting at just under $200 million, and yes, in case you’re wondering, it shows.

Let’s start with the good: this movie, visually, is worth your time, and worth seeing in 3D. It’s cinematic candy for the eyes: you become part of a chase putting you in the seat of a skyjet, you’re visiting beautiful beaches, and you’ll take a tour through a bizarre bazaar. Some of the creatures you run into are cute, some are magical, and some are both. There are some really neat scenes in the film; I have about five or six that I really enjoyed. My top two? The opening scene, and the scene that follows on a beach on the planet Mull (which will be important later in the narrative).

I wasn’t impressed by a couple of things: I wasn’t into Dane DeHaan’s acting, and I found him an odd choice for some of the roles that he’s been cast in – this film is no exception. I didn’t like him in A Cure for Wellness and I thought he was a little weird in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (and not in a good way) as Green Goblin. In Valerian, there were some moments I cheered for him, while in others, I wanted him to get the hell outta dodge. Seven times out of ten, DeHaan came across as bored and tired, and I don’t think that’s what the character was supposed to be about. The person that really impressed me was Cara Delevingne, who played Laureline. She was the perfect balance of sexy, smart and bad ass. Delevingne also had quite a few funny moments and made the experience more enjoyable than I expected. I also enjoyed Clive Owen’s performance, though I would say I liked Rihanna’s more than his.

The writing for me was convoluted. Sometimes I found myself praying to get out of a scene ASAP; other parts made sense and flowed well. Some scenes are so tight and get so much across, which speaks very much to Besson’s style: communicating simple things with a digestible amount of pomp and circumstance. When he tries to combine too much too slowly, however, you find yourself putting your head in your hands and going, “next!” (At least, that’s what I did.) There were also a few damsel-in-distress moments that had me thinking this film was taking a few steps back. Fortunately, Delevingne managed to counter with that Laureline sass and strength I’d come to appreciate throughout the 137 minutes in the theatre.

Valerian is not perfect by any means, but at the heart of it all, it’s a fun ride. I still haven’t made full amends with Besson for the mess that was Lucy (that’s for another day) but I feel like this mostly made up for it. Also – I left the theatre with a smile on my face. Would I go see it a second time? No, but perhaps when it comes out for home release, I’ll buy it.

Three-and-a-half solid intergalactic agents out of five.

Check out the trailer below!

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