In a collaborative medium like film, in which massive amounts of capital are usually expended on a single effort, it’s understandable for even toxic dumpster fires to see the light of day; having stuffed their money into the shredder, the filmmakers might as well try to recoup what they can. So in an era chock full of incoherent CGI spectacles, it’s refreshing to see a CGI spectacle that’s fully coherent. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) may not be an everlasting work of art, but it’s an exemplary genre film—by which I mean that it leans on its genre conventions to superb effect.
Critics have tended to praise the film’s opening montage and visuals while savaging the acting, dialogue, and story. Richard Brody goes up and beyond in calling even the visuals soulless and merely sufficient. While I agree with these general observations, I offer a different, more charitable interpretation of each aspect.
The opening montage is just brilliant. I have nothing to add to that.
The visuals are a sight to behold (sorry), in that not only are they complex, detailed, and energetic, but also coherently presented, allowing us to follow the action amidst even the most dazzling of sequences. Brody’s complaint that the visuals serve no purpose other than eye candy can be understood as a demonstration of how lived in the world is. We might want to explore more of Alpha, but to Major Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), it’s merely their home. Cutting through the various sectors in pursuit of a suspect, Valerian expresses no surprise at what he sees, because none of it is surprising to him. It is we, new arrivals into writer-director-producer Luc Besson’s imagination, who are amazed. Valerian and Laureline only care about the mission.
Well, they also care about each other. Most people would say that they lack onscreen chemistry; Kaleem Aftab wrote an entire article revolving around this theme. But here’s the thing: Unlike Clooney and JLo in Out of Sight (1998), the relationship between Valerian and Laureline is based on seven years of partnership. In fact, grounding their relationship in shared experience rather than instantaneous attraction makes it stronger and more realistic. In essence, they’ve already entered into a steady flirtation and banterhood, regardless of whatever chemistry they may (not) have had in the beginning. They’ve knowingly settled into their roles of “slightly melancholy playboy” and “tolerant object of pursuit.”
In this sense, Delevingne turns in a fine performance, lacking only her native British accent to emphasize the deadpan body language of her snark. DeHaan, too, has suffered greatly at the hands of critics. It’s objectively true that he plays Valerian as a world-weary action hero—Keanu Reeves minus the vampiric immortality, if you will (even the voice is similar)—but just like Reeves in the Matrix trilogy, we don’t like him for his acting. Here is where genre conventions come into play. We warm to Reeves’s affectless acting because the film tells us to, by way of elevating his status: The One, Christ-like, chosen by Morpheus, demonstrating above-average abilities. Similarly, Valerian is (for some reason) a major partnered with a sergeant, described as an indispensable agent, doing his job with above-average audacity, initiative, and courage—all better ways of establishing his protagonist-worthiness than having him be a middle-aged love interest of the much-younger Laureline, as in the comics.
The dialogue, especially the banter, is often delivered with a lack of verve, but that’s mostly because of the aforementioned reasons (Delevingne’s Britishness, DeHaan’s affectlessness). Few lines struck me as truly wooden, but the main one is when, in the middle of that psychedelic cross-Alpha chase sequence, Valerian mutters to Laureline, “It may be the fastest way, but it sure isn’t the easiest.” In context, the line sounds like something a videogame character would say during a long-distance run to preclude the player’s boredom. Other supposedly stilted lines, though, are like the lame jokes uttered by a middle school math teacher that garner laughter because of the long-established teacher-student relationship (an image I stole from Greta Gerwig). The two partners find their conversation interesting because they know each other so well.
The story, too, would seem episodic if not for the evident concern the two protagonists have for each other. And the conspiracy plot works because of, again, genre conventions. A conspiracy thriller seldom makes sense (epitomized by Oliver Stone’s insane JFK (1991)), so the standard of judgment should be whether it feels plausible in-universe. This film makes it plausible with some heavyhanded foreshadowing and pointed telegraphing of major plot twists, all coming up in the ordinary turn of events, so that by the time the conspiracy is revealed it all makes ineluctable sense.
Besson is not the best of storytellers, but in this film, a major labor of love, the style is all-encompassing enough to turn back around and render the story and characters coherent. No small feat.