Luc Beson in an interview said “American’s do not like my films”. He may be right, after all, The 5th Element was panned in the US, though it is regarded as a cult classic and in many ways was far ahead of it’s time. Were American critics right this time around about his latest venture?
Valerian, or to be correct about it, ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’, Besson’s most expensive and ambitious project, has come and gone in the cinema’s and the critics have had their say – most of which was not great, especially reviews that came out of the US. So it was time to see what all the fuss was about and grabbed a copy to see for myself.
But the problem about writing a review, or opinion, about Valerian is where to even start? I write this after only having watched it once and thinking about it still leaves me swimming in its vast ocean.
Bookending film are Valerian’s roots, set in Besson’s childhood reading the French ‘Valérian and Laureline’ comic and loosing himself in its universe. The French, like the Japanese, regard comics/graphic novels as an ‘accepted’ form of literature, hence what they consume has often been far more mature than what the English speaking world has historically been served up. They also have a flavour all their own. So Besson’s dive into the universe of Valerian was a dive into ideas, themes and concepts that are rich and, well, complex. And somewhere, in the confines of film, he tried to squeeze it ALL in.
Film can be many things to many people. Some want entertainment served up on a plate, thinking is an optional extra often not desired. Some want film to challenge and provoke, others want escapism. Depending where you sit on that scale, Valerian could well disappoint; some might say it probably will!regardless! At the end of Valerian I was left bemused and more than somewhat lost. At face value I could walk away from it and say “well, that was a bit… shit” but like the 5th Element before it, it sits on your mind and two days later I realised I need to watch it again… and probably a third time. If there’s one complaint I have with Valerian, it’s that there’s simply too much film to take in…
And it’s in that simple statement where I think Valerian fails it’s audience. Valerian is HUGE! It’s possibly the ‘largest’ film I have ever seen. If you’ve seen The 5th Element, think about that and then multiply it 100 times. Visually, and to a large extent conceptually, there is so much going on that you are overwhelmed; so much so that it becomes difficult to keep up with either what you are seeing or the story itself. If you compare Valerian with a film like Blade Runner 2045, both equally immense, Blade Runner is measured, restrained, delivering its immense visual arc in a tightly controlled and restrained manner. Valerian in contrast unrelentingly drowns you in depth from the start; no matter where you look there is something to absorb. More than that though, every detail is so rich, far out… extroverted, that it takes you that little bit longer to absorb and process and in doing so, you fall behind everything else. You might say the film borders on being almost unwatchable in the normal sense as you need to watch it in passes, or layers in order to absorb it all.
Design wise, Valerian is a feast. The scope of design is so expansive and left field that it becomes dizzying; it’s almost as if there was no filtering mechanism for the film’s design department and therein is one of its joys. Where audiences have become so used to the ‘Hollywood’ version of the future, stark, slick, austere and to a large extent ‘lifeless’, Besson’s future visions are flamboyant, loud and rich – they are the uncompromising drag queens of science fiction. If you like conceptual and set design, and don’t mind watching a film over and over to take it all in, Valerian is for you… you’ll feast for days.
But purely as a film, my jury’s still out. The plot is there and the acting, a bit stiff – but is that because the rest of the film is so over the top? I need to watch it a few more times to make up my mind but I am thinking by then it’ll have grown on me to the point that, like a number of films in my collection, it becomes a reference point. If you want something easy to digest, I am guessing this is not the film for you.
Perhaps the best way to sum it up is like this – I am beginning to see Besson films more like Radiohead, you either ‘get them’ or you don’t; there is no middle ground.
[An interesting side note: It’s been said more than once that the 1969 Valérian and Laureline was a key source of ‘inspiration’ for George Lucas when he came up with Star Wars. Many of the themes and characters and even designs, from Valerian found their way, unabashed, into the Star Wars universe. Here’s an article that talks about this… and another]