Luc Besson’s streak of not making boring movies continued with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The film had many fun individual elements and scenes, and there were a fair amount of positives to take from it overall. With that in mind though, this film overall was a mess that contained some serious structural issues that undermined the whole deal.
1. Dane DeHaan ain’t no hero.
Dane DeHaan is not an untalented actor. He is not without charisma. He was however wholly unqualified for what was required from the lead role from this film.
Our hero in this film goes on a rather traditional journey. He is a bit of an ass, but it’s really just cover for insecurity and vulnerability. As such, the actor playing him needed to have swagger but enough vulnerability to give credibility to his arc.
Dane DeHaan convincingly played the swagger portion (well, he at least was better at that portion of the film anyway). Unfortunately, nothing in his performance in the second half of the film was in any way convincing regarding his character becoming a better person.
His declaration of love and commitment towards his co-lead at the end rang hallow as a result and really took the punch out of the moment the whole film had been building up to at the end.
DeHaan has the makings of a great villain or jackass sidekick, but he’s not your leading hero just yet.
2. Detached Indifference Is Not Captivating
For some reason, DeHaan and Cara Delevingne played their roles with detached indifference 90% of the time. Despite the film’s rather large stakes, our main characters seemed to be lacking all passion for what was going on around them.
As a result, it was hard (if not impossible) to discern what their motivation was throughout the film (beyond feeding their own ego and making themselves laugh at their shitty one-liners).
It’s okay for heroes to be self-involved (see Solo, Han), but these two really did not seem to give much of a fuck about the events they were smack dab in the middle of.
This really made their random moments of caring about things seem out of place and forced instead of the emotional culmination of a feature-length arc.
(Also, both are really short, and that made it seem like literal children were sitting at the adults table the whole film. It was weird.)
3. Second-half Pacing Issues
The first forty-five minutes or so of this film are actually quite awesome. There are lots of colors. There are a lot of flashing lights. There are a lot of unique ideas for chase and action scenes. The characters get to use cool toys. Everything was going swimmingly.
Then everything got tied back to the larger issues and stories going on. The film became a jumbled and oddly paced mess from that point forward.
It could not decide if it wanted to keep the story big or small. It could not decide if it wanted to be just a series of small adventures loosely connected or a big epic story. It could not decide if it wanted to be a serious story with comedic relief or a goofy story that had some stakes.
As a result, the tone and pace just felt weird, and the whole film began to feel disjointed as a result. That was a real shame too since they clearly had a strong foundation from which to build up from.
4. Backdooring In A White Redemption Story
On the margins of the film is the story of a massacred “native” people who were wonderfully in tune with nature and the world until whitey showed up to carelessly wipe from the face of the universe.
Science fiction and fantasy is ripe for allegory so this may have seemed like a good idea. The key phrase that reveals the major flaw though is “on the margins.” (Also, infantilizing “native” people into this majestically peaceful people who never have any internal conflict is beyond patronizing.)
This movie was not the story of an oppressed and slaughtered people rising up to take on their attackers. No, it was the story of two young, white people learning to care about things other than themselves. The story of a massacred native population was simply used as a prop for the character progression of two privileged white characters. Straight garbage.
It was made all the worse when a final act reveal shows that Dane DeHaan’s character had actually been possessed (for wont of a better word) by one of the dead native characters from the beginning of the film. Perhaps they just really wanted to hammer home the Dances with Wolves homage or something where the white boy gets to know what it’s like to “be a native” and that is how they improve as a person.
(This last point was further compounded by some weird gender issues going on where Dane DeHaan was possessed by a female character, and this allowed him to get more in touch with his emotions to earn the trust of Cara Delevingne enough for her to accept his marriage proposal. He somehow proved himself by saying this experience allowed him to understand what women want more and then he presented Cara’s character with a piece of jewelry or something. It was all very fucking weird and annoying.)
When you get a chance to build a never-before-seen world on screen, it would be nice if you did not bring the exact same racist stories that get told on our Earth.