Luc Besson, if you’re reading, which you are, it’s time to grow up. Your ambition and business acumen has always been greater than your talent, and that goes double when making long-gestating adaptations of your most cherished childhood ideas or pop cultural favourites. Understood? Now, if you can bare to, read on.
Twenty years ago The Fifth Element was slapped together from half-remembered teenage daydreams and the sticky applicator for Bruce Willis’s hairpiece. It was technically accomplished, stylish, but had a screenplay exported from that sexually retarded teenager’s brain. Reflection might have made the adult Luc Besson regret some of his creative choices – the movie’s garishness, the tin-eared English dialogue, the ruinous camp, Chris Tucker, future fashion by Jean Paul Gaultier. But time has not matured Besson’s creative instincts – they’re still ham on milquetoast, only convinced him that the problem with Element was the technical limitations that prevented fully immersive pixelated artifice.
In a world crying out for more character-driven storytelling and less CGI, the French nostalgist has produced the opposite. Valerian is a sci-fi fantasy crafted by a man whose attitudes and sensibilities are frozen in aspic, struggling with modern attitudes, with one bloodshot eye on social media.
Besson’s sci-fi blowout is based on Pierre Christin’s comic book, Valerian and Laureline but the phallocentric modification of the title, with poor Laureline cut for the poster promise of visual effects, portends for the writer/director’s take on the movie’s gender politics.
Cara Delevingne’s fellow space agent may have as much to do as the title character, and is at least as credible a solider as the weedy Dane DeHaan, but despite being a 28th century woman she has to suffer indignities vested on her by her 20th century puppeteer. The relationship between the two characters, which if better written might have been the film’s beating heart, is very French and very thin – pivoting as it does on whether the once philandering and non-committal Valerian can be trusted with the heart of his ballsy but vulnerable space partner.
That Laureline is defined by this question, and her attitude to love in general, signals the problem with her on screen conception. She’s aggressive and no nonsense when Besson remembers his twitter feed, less so when the plot’s clichéd beats require she be rescued, or listened to because her emotions add moral clarity. Add to this, curious scenes in which Delevingne’s exhibits a materialist streak or is forced to dress up, plus words of wisdom from a dying Rihanna, here playing a shape shifting blue alien squid with a talent for cabaret, pushing Valerian to look after his woman (why not the other way round?), and you have mixed messages from a man who can’t quite square contemporary sci-fi’s move toward gender parity with his own unreconstructed storytelling instincts.
The budget may be a franco-record breaking 200m EURO, but this is more of the same low rent genre trash we’ve come to expect from Besson’s EuropaCorp – a Xanadu built in the director’s image, pumping out continental copies of American movies, sans the distinctiveness or star power of the originals.
Valerian is a lavishly mounted, flamboyant manifestation of computer power; world building on a scale that hopes to dazzle and distract the eye while the perfunctory plot and beautiful but bland pairing of DeHaan and Delevingne vomit exposition and the director’s trademark doggerel. Why not make the movie in French and finesse the words? The film’s backers would say that all but guaranteed being ignored at the American box office, but given the casting and storytelling acumen on display, that fate was all but certain.
What’s clear as the story fades from memory, crowded out by incident and what Besson imagines are feisty (in reality, laboured) exchanges between the space agents and tempestuous lovers, is the filmmaker’s true focus – his chance to play with the kind of toys used to realise other franchise universes. But retina-raping though it is, nothing sticks. Perhaps we’ve so used to pixel perfect spacecraft, touch screen displays, CG characters and near photorealistic vistas, that a technocentric approach to blockbusting will no longer do. Human interest is what dazzles in the digital filmmaking age, not a city of a thousand planets. And the only thing more guaranteed to expunge that from the frame than CG clutter is broad comedy and one-dimensional characterisation.
A camp sensibility, very much in evidence here, doesn’t kill a movie of course, and why shouldn’t the LGBT community have their own Star Wars? But Valerian’s colourful palate and Flash Gordon friendly costume design affirms its lack of dramatic integrity, the tonal misjudgement. Perhaps it will enjoy an afterlife as a cult favourite like Mike Hodges’ 1980 flop, but in an ever crowded marketplace it’s harder than ever to make your mark on pop culture, and Besson’s film, not original, good or bad enough to be memorable, leaves nothing to reappraise.