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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Valerian]
A space-age epic set in a few sprawling locales, Luc Besson’s Valerian shares many of the same successes and failures as a similarly ambitious series of movies, the Star Wars prequels. That trilogy often overreached for the sake of creative science fiction, zipping its heroes around to multiple themed planets (a swamp planet, a fire planet, a city planet!) while nearly everything and everyone around those heroes outshone them.
Seriously, a well-timed “roger, roger” from a battle droid may be better than almost anything Anakin ever said. And unfortunately, Valerian falls into this prequels trap as well. (The film has been savaged by critics and is bombing at the box office.)
Its environments and side characters are enthrallingly weird, yet the film zips past them like an overzealous tour guide. Ethan Hawke plays a pimp who wears a nose ring that looks like it’s hooked to a wallet chain, while Herbie Hancock portrays a defense minister who just can’t seem to deliver a line. Before meeting them, we go through the best sequence of the film in a multidimensional marketplace. Then the movie thuds to a halt. The novelty wears off when the audience realizes that it must take this tour in the company of the film’s protagonists, and along the route of its plot.
Dane DeHaan (Valerian) and Cara Delevingne (Laureline) deliver their grating romantic banter as woodenly as Hayden Christensen (Anakin) and Natalie Portman (Padme), though the former pair never has anything quite as bad as the latter’s discussion of sand and its shortcomings. In both cases, the female lead is supposed to be the more dominant and competent of the two, yet the male is the one to find power and success, despite his general wimpiness.
So which property influenced the other? The direction of influence is a tight circle. Valerian and Laureline, the comic in which the film finds its basis, is regarded as a seminal piece of science fiction, one that went on to influence countless films (including Star Wars). As an interview with Jean-Claude Mezieres, artist of the comic, notes that Doug Chiang, design director for The Phantom Menace and concept design supervisor of Attack of the Clones, collected the comics. The adaptation took from the prequels that learned from the comics which influenced the original trilogy. It gets a bit complicated when a search begins for causation, but the artistic style has certainly been shared between the two properties for decades.
That might make sense for some of the set piece similarity. Both Valerian and 1999’s The Phantom Menace include an underwater boat chase from an overgrown Placoderm, the former in a greenish lake the protagonist was led to by grating animated natives and the latter in a bluish lake the protagonists were led to by a grating animated native. This escape comes hot off the heels of Valerian‘s high-flying criminal pursuit through a space city, which may feel familiar to those remembering the Coruscant chase in Attack of the Clones. The hot shot of each film’s duo runs off to leave the other one hanging, chasing after to clean up their messes.
Finally, there are some traitorous guards at the beck and call of an evil, high-ranking government official in both Valerian and Revenge of the Sith, though Valerian’s villainous climax is most directly comparable to an episode of Criminal Minds.In Valerian, the bad guy’s evil plot is laid out in full detail, as we whoosh back in time to watch it transpire exactly like the heroes describe, then whoosh back to the present to watch him writhe under a lackluster interrogation. He’s pressed and pressed on his motives until, naturally, a confession pours out because you don’t become a secret villain or military officer without losing your cool when a few kids hypothesize in front of you.
There are broad similarities to be sure, the large strokes of people crafting the varied universe they would like their space opera to inhabit. It’s a matter of misguided ambitions. Does that explain why there are three miserly Jar-Jar Binks analogues that suffer from their own cutesy speech impediment while annoying the heroes? Or the erasure of a particularly important piece of space data from a space database? At least a child doesn’t have to explain the missing clue to push the plot along in Valerian.
While there are strengths in Valerian’s tangents, much like the endearingly strange parts of the Star Wars prequels offered plenty of fun (robot factory fight!) during our respite from listening to its main characters discuss trade federations, its sacrifice of everything central to the film damns it to a legacy of sci-fi disappointment. It’s not a good sign when an English speaker might rather see your film in French to be spared the false-sounding dialogue. There will undoubtedly someday be a fan-cut edition of Valerian that will circulate the Internet and be projected on college campuses as one of the best and most colorful surrealist films ever made, but in the present, the film lacks the name recognition of Star Wars to compensate for its shared deficiencies. As for its current prospects to find an audience this weekend, the most relevant quote is one that appears in some form in every Star Wars film…and also in Valerian: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
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