Notably, no one in the bravura opening sequence speaks. The viewer doesn’t hear any spoken English until after another lengthy sequence, where an idyllic beachside alien species is annihilated, and one sends her memories, or something, to space cop Valerian (Dane DeHaan). DeHaan has been best served as a troubled teen in In Treatment, Chronicle, or Place Beyond the Pines. He has a wounded innocence that’s always apparent when he’s cast correctly, but even if he were better suited for the role, no level of ability could make his dialogue palatable. Not only does he say things no person would ever say, he’s also impossible to buy as the cocksure space cop Valerian is supposed to be. More petulant than devil-may-care, Valerian is a repulsive protagonist, a hero in desperate need of comeuppance and a burden on the film.
Valerian’s worst moments are saved for his interactions with his partner and love interest, Laureline. Played by a blank Cara Delevingne, the two have a chemistry level at zero and relationship stakes at 11. In their first scene together, Valerian offhandedly proposes to her, an offer justifiably rejected but one that hangs like a toxic cloud over the rest of the film. Once the plot kicks back in and it’s eventually revealed that the alien spirit inside of Valerian is guiding his investigation, Besson’s basement-level opinion of Laureline rears its head again with jealousy towards the spirit, an emotion that makes her character just as absurd as her paramour. When they’re at work, there’s no sense of how they complement each other. They’re two wooden bulls in china shops, carelessly destroying scenery and murdering aliens with no consequences. The better film features the various alien species that they run roughshod over teaming up and ridding the galaxy of this menace.
It’s probable that Besson could not be bothered to construct a single memorable or believable character because he was consumed with building out the dozens of alien species and handful of cultures featured in the film. On the former, the variety is appreciated but he misses a chance to really dive into the grossness of some of these species, particularly a MacGuffin animal that can replicate whatever it gets fed. Let’s spice up this dreck with some protoplasm out of a Nickolodeon morning show. On the cultures, the aliens with the tragic backstory are essentially noble savages living in harmony with their planet. They feature in the only inventive plot twist, where instead of an outsider mastering their traditions, they end up mastering the more advanced culture. Flipping a cliché is as simple as it gets, but at least there’s some tiny level of thought put into the tribe’s arc. Conversely, a very long interlude to rescue a captured Laureline from a bunch of braindead ogre aliens is a complete waste of time that doesn’t serve the plot and could be avoided by not contriving a way for Laureline to be captured in the first place. There’s something to be said for a shaggy plot in a setting where there’s something new around every corner, but not when spending time with the characters is so difficult.
There’s a thread in the film about a spreading radiation cloud in the center of the space station. This is an apt metaphor for the distance between character and setting in Valerian. Besson starts with solid ideas like Rihanna playing a shape-shifting stripper or John Goodman voicing a black-market lizard-man thug, but Goodman disappears quickly and Rihanna’s Bubble is a complete miscalculation that exits the film ungracefully as soon as the character fulfills its purpose. To Valerian’s credit, it’s lacking in the deadly self-seriousness of similar space opera boondoggle, Jupiter Ascending, and that opening scene is truly great. However, the understandable urge for new frontiers in big-budget filmmaking doesn’t convey the benefit of the doubt on films which ignore significant chunks of what it is to be a compelling film. Valerian’s got plenty of imaginative CGI, and is utterly lacking in humanity. D+