If this is the movie which winds up bankrupting Luc Besson, and it could well be, it will be the money version of dying doing something you loved. It’s as comprehensively and insanely a Besson movie as it possibly could be, without being a movie as good as Besson is capable of making on a good day. It looks amazing, and it treats the whole concept of making sense as an afterthought. And yet ...
Let’s start with Cara Delavingne, who’s been singled out for wrecking things by not being able to act (one review suggested that she can, but that Besson told her to play her character as a malfunctioning robot). I don’t know if she can act, but her air of unfazed indifference to the lunacy going on around her made perfect sense to me. I found her a lot easier to buy than Dane DeHaan, who appears to have prepared for his part by getting Eddie Redmayne drunk and asking him how he managed Jupiter Ascending. Allegedly DeHaan can act, so either he decided not to, or flat out couldn’t see how to do it when everything around him was green screen and tennis balls, or he read the script and figured that no amount of acting was going to get this over the line into a believable performance.
I am forced to conclude that the problem was the script. Since just about everything in the movie is CGI stacked on top of more CGI, they were going to have fake everything no matter what they did. And so they didn’t have to make the usual compromises with the writing where the director realises that he can’t get the picture in his head onto film. This is the 21st century and Besson is throwing all the money in the world at his personal vision. It looks the way he wanted it to look, and it’s the story he wanted to tell. That’s the problem. The story doesn’t really hang together. For all I know it’s a completely faithful adaptation of the underlying comic book text, and Besson’s only mistake was loving the source material too much.
But whatever the reason, Valerian is a mess. It’s a great-looking mess, but it’s a mess all the same. The puzzle is that The Fifth Element was also a mess, and yet somehow it worked. There’s a thesis to be written on that. I suspect that in part it was that The Fifth Element was made at a time when CGI wouldn’t quite let you do whatever you wanted, so that Besson had to keep pausing and reworking the script so that it could somehow be delivered with practical effects, whereas Valerian was made at a time where movies have become almost like novels or comic books, in that there’s no real difference in the cost of imagination no matter how far fetched the imagination becomes. Once upon a time a cast of thousands required a cast of actual thousands, and a single line in a novel or picture in a comic book could become a logistical nightmare to get on screen. Now there’s not much of a cost difference between a fake background of a distant forest and a fake background of a million soldiers, so why not have the soldiers?
Or it could have been the actors. Usually it’s a good thing that Clive Owen is not Gary Oldman, but there are moments when Oldman’s lunacy is required, especially when you’re Luc Besson and you need a villain who can declaim at the top of his voice while simultaenously chewing all the carpets in the universe. Owen can’t pull that off. And DeHaan can’t manage to be Bruce Willis, much as Cara Delavingne doesn’t have whatever it is that Milla has. And what’s that off to the side? Has yet another effects heavy lunatic movie found a way to waste Elizbeth Debicki? Yup. Bonus points for hiding her so much that I didn’t realise she was there until the credits.