Rarely has a film in modern memory replete with so many exceptional actors been so poorly cast.
Luc Besson’s $180 million adaption of the beloved French comic series and the most expensive indie ever made to boot was never going to please everyone. A grand sci-fi with yet untested cinematic content is a long bow for many audiences at the best of times; the recent slate of high-profile flops, Tomorrowland and Jupiter’s Ascending among them, boding none too well for Valerian.
Still, there was hope that the Fifth Element Director might deliver something akin to his early-career triumphs and their kinetic, gaudy thrill. Unmistakably of his making, Besson’s trademarks are littered throughout his latest, bloated offering; a neglectful exercise in world-building that will regretfully leave even his most ardent fans wanting.
Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), the prized pairing amongst those tasked with order in an interstellar colony home to innumerable alien species, soon encounter a race in the heart of the installation of whom they have no record. Implicating their superiors and any number of figures they can’t trust, both shenanigans and more perilous happenstances ensue.
Ostensibly a comedy, it’s a curious decision to cast DeHaan as the titular character. A roguishly flippant persona that will evoke memories of all that which made Harrison Ford famous, DeHaan, a superbly unsettling dramatic performer most at home in the likes of Chronicle or A Cure for Wellness, doesn’t even get away with saying ‘Happy Birthday’ without having it sound sinister.
Alden Ehrenreich being unavailable, there are any number of DeHaan’s contemporaries, perhaps less famous but better-suited, who would be comfortably at home in a flick where you are frequently required to smirk and look like you’re having fun while shooting things. An ever more popular figure in Hollywood, DeHaan, better accustomed to Valerian’s few really dramatic moments and too intensive in its lighter fare, was clearly not cast with the script nor its origins clearly in mind.
Delevingne, as with Suicide Squad dramatically out of depth in a role that demands a decidedly more experienced performer, unlike her co-star excels in a few of the funnier sequences though cannot carry the emotional weight of the more impassioned story elements that fall heavily on her shoulders.
It does not help that the leads have little to no chemistry – with Valerian’s propositions and not indirect flirting, intended as a reprieve from the film’s more dramatic impacts, here rendered visibly and interminably awkward. Too focused on the vast expanse of the setting and potential of it’s verse, comparatively little attention is paid to the nature of the hugely consequential dynamics unfolding right before our eyes.
The dialogue and stylistic elements lifted fairly directly from source material that plays much better in a speech bubble than in a script, the film lacks the guileless, duly self-aware charm that characterized more considered comic adaptations of not dissimilar favourites such as The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Danger: Diabolik and Roman Coppola’s tragically underrated CQ.
An extended sequence heavily featuring a particular species in a restricted zone goes some way to redeeming Valerian with some genuinely hilarious comic touches, too featuring Rihanna as one of the film’s only well-cast figures, alongside a surprising, fleeting appearance by Ethan Hawke. Losing track as the feature attempts to navigate less irreverent territory and none too subtly weave in analogies to our own universe, Clive Owen, among others, here demonstrates how playing against type isn’t always the wisest decision.
A hopeful, deeply-flawed jumble of a picture that can’t be saved by its exceptional CGI, at least one woefully conspicuous attempt to engage the selective Chinese market could just salvage what may likely underperform before many audiences.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is in cinemas on August 10