As an inspiration for Star Wars and countless other sci-fi franchises ever since its 1967 publication, the French comic Valerian by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres has in many ways already been adapted into a variety of different movies. Which is why it’s so impressive that Luc Besson’s take on this universe feels so wildly original. It’s bright, gorgeous, and every step takes you somewhere that you’ve never quite seen the like of. Brilliant visuals, imaginative set-pieces, and design that feels like Besson mashing up Star Wars, Star Trek, and Firefly, Valerian seems like it should be a sure fire hit.
And yet, it is decidedly not. Ignoring for the moment that there’s no way this esoteric, superstar-free film will make back the enormous amounts of money pumped into it, there is so little in Valerian’s script that actually works. From the convoluted conspiracy plot to the lifeless central romance between the eponymous Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), nothing grabs your attention aside from the pretty space colours and various fun alien species. Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting Alpha, a space-station city, home to species from over 1000 planets, after a mysterious enemy attacks and floods the city centre with radiation.
Taking orders from the laughably shady Commander Filit (Clive Owen) and good egg General Oktobar (Sam Spruell), Valerian and Laureline zip around Alpha, trying to decipher this mystery. Along the way, they meet odd characters, like an inter-dimensional criminal voiced by John Goodman and shape-shifting alien Bubble (Rihanna), but none of them make an impact outside of their appearance, and every line of dialogue is functional at best, but more often simply groan-worthy. Attempts at humour fall flat, and the will-they wont-they dynamic between Valerian and Laureline is immediately tiresome, and should have been thrown out entirely.
It doesn’t help that DeHaan and Delevingne have next to no charisma or chemistry, and whoever thought these two could headline a major sci-fi tentpole was woefully misguided. DeHaan is by turns bored and annoying, and there’s something about Delevingne’s line deliveries and timing that is just…off. A lead duo with more star power would have made for more compelling viewing, but salvaging something from this script would still be a big ask. The dialogue-free opening 10 minutes actually achieve an emotional connection, frightening and saddening in equal measure, but nothing from later on in the film comes close to this level of engagement.
If you insist on seeing Valerian, then do so on the biggest screen possible and in 3D, as, when no one is talking, it’s an immersive experience that introduces you to original world after original world. But, with all this ambition on the visual and world-building fronts, it’s a crying shame that Besson found it acceptable to phone in the script (which contains a pretty unsavoury tendency towards animal cruelty for some cheap laughs) and that a better cast couldn’t be assembled. It’s always nice to see a sci-fi that’s about a utopia that needs protecting rather than a dystopia that needs conquering, but if that’s what you’re looking for, Star Trek is on Netflix now, so settle for that.