From acclaimed director Luc Besson comes an adaptation of the French comic book series Valérian and Laureline with an absurdly long name. Lee reviews.
What is left to be said of war? A trait in humankind that has affected nearly all people at nearly if not all times in our world’s history; surely we’ve said all there is to say?
What is left to be said about love? That umbrella concept that both attempts to justify our attraction to other people as well as summarise why you stick around with the people you might not exactly have chosen to stick around with. Does describing the mental processes that create what we have termed love rob the word of its intended universality?
What is left to be said about duty, or gender, or death? Maybe the other two got by you, but now surely you’re thinking ‘probably a lot of things, actually’. Rightly so; humans are infinitely complex, and even our longest reaching concepts still haven’t been fully broken down and explored in every context and light, thus we keep telling stories that involve them.
The point is while director-writer Luc Besson includes all of the above in his new film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he manages to raise such doubt into whether he has said anything new at all that you might question whether there is anything left to say. And while that might sound scathing, so let’s roll it back a bit, because this isn’t a total negative.
Part of the charm of Besson’s work is that he often goes for the wider, undefined experience and revels in it. The big concepts like love and war play an integral part in this story, for example, and no one could deny it, but our story takes place very much beside these notions rather than deeply within them.
Much like his earlier film, The Fifth Element, the pedestal with which we should regard the concept of love in that movie is simple, perhaps too simple, and only tangentially related to the movie that touts it. But Besson includes the notion regardless, making a vague statement that is just as vague as the concepts he hopes to explore, and there’s something fascinating in that aspect that resembles blind optimism.
The real issue however is when he actually tries to make a genuine or specific comment on these notions, and unfortunately Valerian has a few instances of this. While its fine to have a character experience a moral dilemma over their role as a soldier (duty) and their role as a decent person (kindness, love, altruism) because the notions involved are vague enough to be considered universally applicable, the gender role battles here between main characters Valerian and Laureline are trying to be more specific about outstanding social issues in gender equality – something the film never really gets around to championing in any one direction.
That and attempts to comment on bureaucracy and the issues inherent in balancing an economy are too frivolous in their execution and never really get around to making a point even on a general level, and this is where Besson steps outside his element to a world that really appears to be too big and too detailed for him to fully grasp.
Throw in a long, meandering adventure that contains all the pieces required to create a rollicking good time bar character motivation and investment and you have a movie that is difficult to recommend, despite its visually stunning and wonderfully introduced world. For every time you get swept up in a dimension-hopping chase scene or sleaze-filled rescue mission, you’ll find your enjoyment hampered by frustratingly obvious mystery tropes and an undefined sense of duty that just reads like the characters are in the plot because there’s a plot to be in.
That and why they didn’t use the name Valérian and Laureline (the name of the original comic) for the film when clearly Laureline is not only a co-star but in fact carries the film for nearly 30 minutes on her own somewhat tosses away any good will earned on that social agenda front.
Valerian is a fun, well-intentioned film that wishes it could be more and, in doing so, misses what makes its best moments so charming.