As petty as it may seem, I get a sense of vindictive pleasure when a huge, exorbitantly expensive blockbuster becomes a box office flop. I feel that the studios funding these trite, cash-grab projects deserve to have things blow up in their faces from time to time. As long as the people actually working to make the film (i.e. the cast and crew) get paid, it doesn’t really affect anyone who can’t afford to take the hit. Studios have become too large, too powerful, and too wealthy for their own good, so seeing films that are meant to be the next Avatar (2009) end up as huge commercial and critical failures brings about a little smug satisfaction for me.
Having said all that, Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets has (as of this writing) made $225 million in its combined domestic and international theatrical runs (approximately $25 million more than its budget), so it is certainly not a commercial failure in the traditional sense. However, it must be assumed that much more was invested in marketing, so it is difficult to say whether the team of studios who funded the production were able to recoup their losses or not. Either way, studios are not inclined to dump $200 million into a project unless they have a reasonable assurance of huge profits, so it was, at the very least, a major disappointment.
This all begs the question: what made this well-funded project such a dud? There are a variety of reasons related to marketing and steep competition upon its initial release, but the answer lies primarily in the film itself. Valerian, directed by Luc Besson and based on the popular French comic series, Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin, follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are sent on a mission to retrieve a creature capable of replicating anything that it consumes. I won’t give any further plot summary, as it gets needlessly complex and difficult to follow, which I have to imagine contributed to the film’s financial woes.
Though I have read from a variety of sources that Christin’s original comic series is a wonderfully rich, engrossing work of science fiction, Valerian is nothing of the sort. Overly-reliant on flashy CGI and action-adventure cliches, the film feels wholly unoriginal and lacking in anything remotely memorable. Dane DeHaan, fresh off the heels of his equally unremarkable performance in A Cure for Wellness (2016), feels like a mismatch for the role, and it shows in just about every scene. DeHaan is meant to be a suave, womanizing super agent of sorts, but with notably boyish features and mannerisms, he feels like he is desperately reaching to portray a character that is far beyond his abilities. With each line of eye roll-inducing dialogue, DeHaan sounds like a prepubescent boy trying to do his best impression of Christian Bale’s Batman. I can only guess that director Luc Besson wanted Major Valerian to exude more traditional masculinity, and therefore insisted that DeHaan try to drop his voice down to a lower octave, but it is painfully apparent that DeHaan is just not fit to be a leading man in this kind of film.
Bizarre vocal performances aside, the plot meanders between being confusing, boring, derivative, and occasionally all three at the same time. Far too much of the story is dedicated to the back-and-forth romance between Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline. While Valerian is the bad-boy rebel who unceremoniously proposes to her early on in the film, Laureline is the stern, by-the-books soldier who spurns his advances and must rescue him from his own hubris and poor decision-making on various occasions. With how many other films have used this exact same character dynamic before, it is mind-boggling that writers still see it as a viable option. In addition, the filmmakers used the (once again) tired trope of a race of aliens who are on the brink of extinction after humans destroyed their home planet. This is, of course, the obvious natives vs. imperialists metaphor that is ripped straight from Avatar, which itself ripped this plot device from previous films.
If all of this weren’t bad enough, Valerian also features Rihanna as a completely unnecessary character named Bubble, whose purpose in the film is essentially to entice male spectators. She dances provocatively and assists Valerian for a brief time, but otherwise she is just a distraction from the film’s numerous shortcomings. Her acting is nothing special, but one is more inclined to blame the filmmakers for making her character into such a trivial and poorly-executed addition to the story.
In summary, even if you are simply looking for a mindless, escapist visual spectacle, there are still much better options out there. Ultimately, most of what makes this such a bungled endeavor could be forgiven if it wasn’t so dreadfully boring. To say that there are better science fiction adventure films to be seen is a gross understatement, so my advice is just to look elsewhere.
Rating: ★ out of 5
On the off chance that you still want to watch this film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.