‘So, what will it be, soldier?’
Occasionally I have a masochistic streak when it comes to cinema. It’s a bit like that whole ‘love-to-hate’ or ‘it’s-so-bad’-it’s good’ except it’s more intense. For instance, as soon as the credits rolled on Varlerian, I turned to the friend I was with (Hi, Emma!) and said ‘I want to see that again..!’ The reason isn’t because I enjoyed it, far from it in fact. For a film that has such huge visuals it’s also immensely boring – it’s a total slog that even from the opening sequence you find yourself counting down to its end. In this case that was very far away as the total running time is 137 minutes or, as Emma put it, ‘over two hours of her life that I’ll never get back’ (Sorry Emma!)
The reason I want to watch Valerian again is because it just so bad. It’s awfully, fantastically, shockingly bad. On every single level and to such an extent that I want to watch it again and again, to pause and unpause to break down entire sequences, because I’m hardpressed to think of another film in recent cinematic history that is as incredibly bad as this one. Gods of Egypt is the only one I can think of (click here to read my review) but even that comparison doesn’t do my argument justice. It’s a different kind of bad from typical Hollywood fare and it feels like a truly remarkable moment, the pinnacle of noble intent failing in every possible aspect.
Pre-watching it was pretty obvious something was amiss, the film was being billed as the ‘3d experience of the summer’. For a PR team to decide to utilize the term ‘experience’ as opposed to ‘film’ to describe a, well, ‘film’ – that’s a huge red flag. The trailer also looked slightly hammy and the reviews that filtered through post embargo were far from kind.
However, Valerian has the kind of bad that truly needs to be seen to be believed. Hopefully words do not fail in my want to express these sentiments, although I fear I will never fully be able to grasp why this film truly does not work. It’s like they threw everything at the wall (a supposed $177 million worth of ‘everything’!) and it all became one homogeneous mess of strangeness. Because, first and foremost, Valerian is a very strange movie. Immensely weird. And I don’t mean the ‘cool’ kind of weird nor the ‘it’s really clever weird that only a select few can fully appreciate it weird’ (only the worst kind of people would claim that). It wants to be a space opera – big, loud & proud – but instead mashes together genres and ideas to such an extent that is all become a bland blur. Just as when you mix all the colours of paint together you get a murky brown, that is epitome of the ‘logic’ that went on behind scenes here.
The story is a hybrid of Avatar, Dances with Wolves, Serenity and the cantina scene from A New Hope – except without any of the good stuff . What could be an interesting story that hypothesizes about the nature of utopia/dystopia is bloated beyond belief with an exorbitant amount of narrative diversions, to the extent you regularly have to remind yourself what is going on and why they are currently doing what they are doing on screen at that present moment in time. It’s approach to storytelling is old-fashioned, conservative, muddled, lacklustre and lethargic.
Then add in the fact the script is packed full of coulda-woulda-never-gonna-be-a jokes that fail to land or even launch – though that’s not just down to the screenplay but also down to casting. The two leads are completely devoid of charisma and are totally unlikeable. As the film progresses you find yourself shifting from indifference to willing something bad to happen to either/both of them. Neither has a redeeming nor defining moment, leaving both to deliver performances that are only memorable for how stilted they are. But then, it takes us back to that age-old question, what came first – the mediocre acting or the google translate equivalent of a script.
Valerian is the cinematic equivalent to the people who describe themselves as quirky – try-hard, self-indulgent and over-eager.
I can’t help but find myself admiring the ambition, of thinking what could have been. The visuals are astonishing and the amount of imagination that must have been required to construct such a space should be applauded. Then I remember the opening five minutes feature lots of people shaking hands to the tune of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’.
The intent, was it noble or arrogant? Valerian should’ve been a visual spectacle that entertained and intrigued. Instead, somehow, it limps from start to finish.