Luc Besson’s long-awaited return to space opera and pop sci-fi isn’t the worst movie of 2017, but bless his heart he definitely makes a sincere attempt at claiming that honor. Based on the long-running French comic book series, it’s pretty to look at, but also a shallow, loud, dumb and aimless test of one’s patience.
It’s a shock and a disappointment, arriving in the form of a creeping sensation that sets in after a promising and visually stunning opening act and metastasizes around the halfway point, when one realizes that the opening credits sequence and Rihanna’s bit part as a shape-shifting pole-dancer are going to be the only stand-out moments.
The plot — what little there is of it — is thus: Four hundred years into the future, a paradisiacal planet is destroyed by an unexpected, fiery event. Cut to Han Solo Lite — er, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) — and his partner/girlfriend Laureline (Cara Delevigne), special agents for the United Human Federation, on a vague mission to confiscate a MacGuffin and deliver it to their superior officer, Commander Fillitt (Clive Owen).
From that point forward, Valerian and Laureline spend roughly 90 minutes being propelled from one set-piece to another via a very minimal amount of plot development, until the obligatory Final Battle and exposure of Fillitt as the bad guy. (That’s not exactly a spoiler, by the way — Besson telegraphs that plot point throughout the movie by having Owen/Fillitt do everything but twirl his mustache and laugh like Dick Dastardly while winking into the camera.)
Valerian’s biggest flaw is that it’s not about anything, at all. The story is barely there, the character arcs are almost non-existent, and the overlying themes are largely ignored — which is a real pity because the movie sets up a golden opportunity to make some pointed social commentary before wandering off, distracted by the shiny objects of its own production design.
Still, the movie could have skated by if the leads were at least charismatic and fun, but DeHaan and Delevigne are stilted and dead-eyed in just about every scene. It’s probably not their fault; Besson takes a deep dive in CGI wizardy like it might be his only chance to do so, and his actors are buried beneath what can only be described as Guardians of the Galaxy as envisioned by a cracked-out Willy Wonka.
On top of that, Valerian and Laureline are a generic screen couple envisioned as a loveable cad and his long-suffering, plucky paramour; however, their rote I-love-you-marry-me/you’re-a-jerk-with-commitment-issues banter is so clunky, hackneyed, and slightly gas-lighting that they come across as one of those vapid, obnoxious couples you wish would take their abusive bickering some place other than the check-out line at Ikea.
What we’re left with is The Fifth Element with a bigger budget and less restraint. Make of that what you will.