Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Some critics are going to really hate Valerian. Like, reaaaaalllllyyyy hate it. Luc Besson's loving adaptation of the French comic series of his youth is so unapologetically earnest in its embracing of the pulpy sci-fi/fantasy source material that it'll get on some of the stodgier critics' nerves.
The pendulum has swung around. Now it seems deconstructing sci-fi is the easy, safe path. It's much harder to approach a big, bright genre film with your heart on your sleeve and Luc Besson does that with Valerian.
It's a not dumb movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a childlike glee to every new species shown to us, a happy innocence to every new corner of Alpha, the giant space station at the center of this story, explored. Instead of hiding from bright primary colors, Besson bombards you with them. There are sections of this movie that feel like getting to step inside some of Michael Whelan's crazier fantasy art.
Your enjoyment of this movie will depend a lot on how you react to that aesthetic. Beneath the colorful imagery there's a whole of world building going on and some crazy characters to enjoy, from the shapeshifting blue blob creature that most commonly takes the form of Rihanna to wonky-eyed doofuses that literally fish for humans, and inventive set pieces, like a multi-dimension heist that takes place in the first act.
On a technical level the filmmaking is top tier. Besson's confidence and adoration of the source material is evident in every frame. It's evident right off the bat with a rather fantastic opening credits sequences that sets the tone perfectly while also rooting this insane sci-fi future world in a reality we can relate to.
All the world building and design awesomeness and CGI whizzbangery doesn't really matter too much if you don't care about the characters. This is where Cara Delevingne earns her MVP status on this picture. Her Laureline is a playful mix of Princess Leia and Han Solo. She is never a damsel in distress. Even when she finds herself in trouble she's more apt to save herself than have to wait on Valerian to come to her rescue. In fact, I think she ends up coming to Valerian's rescue more often than he does for her.
This was the big surprise of the movie for me. I expected Besson to make an entertaining, complicated, deep world. After Suicide Squad I didn't expect much from Delevingne. It might not be fair to lay that performance squarely on her shoulders, but she went way off the deep end there. Could be my lowered expectations created the perfect environment for me to surprised by her in this movie, but I'd like to think Besson is the first director to really understand where her talents as a performer lay.
Laureline is so charming and on the ball that she actually runs circles around the title character. Dane DeHaan isn't bad in the part, it's just impossible for Valerian to compete with Laureline. He's so single-minded as a character that all the depth in their relationship falls to Laureline. That said, there's an interesting reveal about 2/3rds into the movie that gives Valerian some time to spread his wings as a character, but by that time there's not much room for him to expand upon that before the movie's over.
Their relationship is a bit... complex. I see why people are thrown by it. On the surface it's way more brother/sister than boyfriend/girlfriend. I personally think that playful chemistry works both ways and makes for an interesting dynamic, something that's not your typical romance, but I can see there being an argument that it's a little bit of a missed opportunity to downplay the romance with the kidding around.
I haven't gotten a chance to see the movie in 3D yet, but even in 2D you can tell that the world is built for that experience. It's a little like Avatar in that way. There's so much attention to detail in every shot on Alpha that you know you're only ever able to take in a fraction of the visual information on display. That ends up making the world feel realized in a way that most genre filmmakers don't get across.
What that means is that this movie feels like the tip of the iceberg. In a good way. You get a complete, self-contained story against the backdrop of a wider universe that I wish I could waste hours exploring. If this was an RPG style open universe video game my friends and family would probably have to stage an intervention to make sure I don't disappear from society.
I can continue talking about how inventive the filmmaking is and how charming the characters are and why Bubble is one of my new favorite movie characters and just how impressive the world building is, but at the end of the day all that matters is that this movie's just fun to watch. That's it. It's earnest, pulpy fun and a great contrast to most of what we get in any big budget genre today.