***Note that there are some potential spoilers toward the end of the review, depending on your definition.***
I wanted to like this movie, I really did. Unfortunately, the best thing about this movie is the title (which is still pretty awesome).
An argument could be made that I should have expected to be disappointed; I’d seen the poor reviews, though I chose not to read any of them in detail. I often don’t click with critics, and numerous reviewers eviscerated The Fifth Element (Valerian director Luc Besson’s 1997 space opera). Unfortunately Valerian fails where Fifth Element succeeded. The older film certainly wasn’t for everyone, and on the whole it wasn’t necessarily my style either, but it dedicated itself to an over-the-top, silly tone and played it to the hilt without shame. A viewer willing to get on board and accept the ride was in for a hell of a time, and the consistently lighthearted feel opened the door for some entertaining, comic-book-style action and a little bit of heart.
In Valerian, Besson fails to pick a tone and stick with it. The visual style is certainly appealing to a bizarre, Farscape-esque sensibility (which I do mean as a compliment), but nothing else is consistent, with the feel ranging from traditional action to camp to moralizing in un-blended, jarring transitions. The broaching and sustaining of the romantic subplot is particularly abrupt and forced. The interactions between the male and female lead are dull at best, and while some critics have ascribed this problem to the actors, the writing does not give them much to work with. (Nothing as egregious as the “No, I love you more” scene at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, but still…)
Unfortunately there are problems with pacing and story structure as well. The first sequence post-credits is beautiful but too long. After this, things improve for a while, and the protagonists' initial return to the titular city is compelling. Things quickly go off the rails, though, as the plot devolves into little more than an excuse to explore the varied corners of The City of a Thousand Planets, and the audience is soon reminded that all that glitters is not gold. I was still tenuously on board until the appearance of a weirdly-costumed Ethan Hawke, as the owner of some kind of brothel, in a sequence that could have been entirely cut from the film with no impact on the actual story. (Here I must note that the sequence in question includes a quick-change, non-striptease act performed for the title character that seems to go on forever, uncomfortably, and shatters the supposed urgency of the situation at that point in the film.) This points to the more general pacing and structure problems: The movie might have given tighter focus to the central conflict and invented intermediate challenges relevant to it, and this would have been great. Or with smarter editing the intermediate challenges as-written might have been built into an epic journey structure, something reminiscent of a space-opera version of 1983’s Krull with better writing and production values. Instead the film takes a middle-of-the-road approach that fails to satisfy on either front.
Just when the central conflict coalesces and is about to win me back from the Ethan Hawke-inspired separation, the story corners to a moral tale landing somewhere between Avatar and recent refugee crises. The preaching isn’t too heavy-handed, but it’s there. This culminates in an unprecedented and stilted speech from the female lead about love being the greatest power in the universe…or something…that shoved me out of the story for good. Ultimately the central conflict is resolved with no meaningful input from the protagonists – save for a consequence-free moral decision, giving up “the MacGuffin” of the plot which had no real value to them anyway.
I hate to be so down on a film, and Valerian certainly had its fun scenes and entertaining moments. Even there, however, the best shots were all in the trailer. Unless you have an extreme brand loyalty to Luc Besson, I’d find a better way to spend a couple hours. Even if you do, you’re probably better off just watching The Professional again.