'Valerian' Reviews Say the Beautiful Visuals Aren't Worth the Pain

by Monica Hunter-Hart
YouTube user: ONE Media and STX Entertainment

Any new project from iconic French director Luc Besson, creator of the 1997 sci-fi classic The Fifth Element, is watched closely: His work tends to be either widely loved or hated, but it’s always daring in some way. In the case of the futuristic fantasy film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which premieres on Friday and is expected to be one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, Besson went big and bold on the visuals. Reviews for the movie are flooding in, and they’re quick to praise its gorgeous graphics but disagree on whether those are enough to salvage the deeply flawed movie.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a 1960s French comic, “Valérian and Laureline,” and takes place in the 28th century. It follows the story of two young heroes and love interests, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, whose job it is to help maintain order in the galaxy; the city Alpha becomes threatened, and Valerian and Laureline must find a way to save it in just 10 hours.

The protagonists are at the heart of many of the film’s problems, according to some critics. Rolling Stone writes that Valerian “is mostly asked to joke and flirt until stuntmen take over for the dangerous stuff,” and that Laureline is similarly superficial. “In place of characters we get attitudes.”

The city Alpha

YouTube user: ONE Media and STX Entertainment

Valerian and Laureline are criticized as having poor chemistry, though this is often blamed on the dialogue, which The Kansas City Star calls “terrible”:

“Besson is just so invested in his wacky world-building, he routinely forgets about his central characters. […] The mind wanders easily in this universe, and it’s tempting to create backstories for the creatures that move around the margins. They’re the ones Besson is really interested in. Why shouldn’t the audience be, too?”

The plot has also been disparaged. Slate wrote that it felt forced and too jam-packed: “Besson’s trying to cram in as much as he possibly can, but the more he overstuffs the movie, the emptier it feels.” The New Yorker called the story “a joyless, effortful slog.” The New York Post called it infantile, saying, “If the target audience of this mess was 8-year-olds, I’d totally get it.” CNET wrote:

“The plot is as nebulous as spacedust, and simply provides endless opportunities for Valerian and Laureline to get into wacky scrapes with a succession of grotesque creatures. Which I’m all for, by the way. Unfortunately, several unforced errors sap the anarchic, punk energy that powers the first act and gave ‘The Fifth Element’ its cult appeal. [… The movie] isn’t bad, but nor is it much fun.”

Rihanna as "Bubble"

YouTube user: ONE Media and STX Entertainment

The one character that all the critics seemed to love was Rihanna as “Bubble” the entertainer. “She has something this movie desperately needs: star quality,” wrote Rolling Stone. The New Yorker wrote that her “voice steals the film,” and The New York Post titled its review: “Rihanna is the only good part of ‘Valerian.’”

Some critics indicated that the film isn’t free of the problematic portrayals of women that haunt many of Besson’s films, including The Fifth Element. Marie Claire wrote:

“Of the 3 female characters, every single one appears, at one point or more, in a bikini. […] Every female character’s dialogue feels as though it was written by a man whose only exposure to women is through sassy CVS greeting cards. […] Cara Delevingne doesn’t get to rescue herself because apparently she needs to be rescued by our strong, brave male hero while she’s a damsel in distress forced to wear a wedding dress and offer food to a grotesque foreign alien emperor.”

The Atlantic offered one of the most positive reviews, saying that even though “the dialogue is at times overly expositional, and attempts at humor or romance can be remote and clunky,” the film was still “a true original that deserves to be remembered”:

“Like a lot of Besson’s work, it’ll probably largely be dismissed as a stylish mess upon release, eventually becoming a cult classic one can imagine captivating midnight theater-goers for decades to come. […] Valerian is the kind of science-fiction film that doesn’t get made enough anymore. It’s unafraid to embrace the expansive potential of its genre, to make each new location, costume, and alien creature feel like the wildest version of itself.”

One of the many alien creatures that gets a cameo in 'Valerian.'

YouTube user: ONE Media and STX Entertainment

Everybody slobbered over the visuals and recommended seeing the film on an enormous screen — and even in 3D — if possible. So if you’re still feeling intrigued by the movie despite the subpar reviews, consider viewing it in the theater instead of jeapordizing its major redeeming quality with a tiny laptop screen.

Or not.

KSL.com wrote that the movie isn’t worth the price of admission. Perhaps that review best summed up the critical reactions to Valerian:

“It’s Besson, after all. If anyone is going to spin terrible CG and wooden acting into gold, it’s him. Also, if someone is going to take $180 million and create a truly awful movie with terrible CG and wooden acting, well, that’s also him.”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets premieres in the United States tomorrow, July 21, and in France on July 26.

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