When does a bad film become a hit? There are, essentially, two types of ‘bad film’ that tend to become popular. On the one hand, we have the chronically incompetent: films so inept at meeting the minimum requirements for a released film that watching them can become a bizarre comic thrill. Extreme examples of this category include The Room and Sharknado. I myself have a real fondness for the live action Scooby Doo adaptations – abysmal filmmaking, yes, but amusingly so. The other type of ‘bad film’, however, is less clear-cut. These are the films with glaring, often critical failings – of writing, of acting, of special effects, you name it – that manage to win people over in spite of them, through some nugget of honest success. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film with a panoply of glaring faults, a bad film by many measures, but one with enough invention to gloss over the cracks with surprising effectiveness.
The film is based on a French comic book series called Valérian and Laureline, about two intergalactic crime-fighting agents. Directed by Luc Besson (director of Leon: The Professional), Valerian has a slightly episodic feel, but the plot broadly concerns a paradise-like planet seemingly bombed into extinction, an act of sabotage and kidnap aboard a gigantic, multitudinous space station, and a deeply predictable conspiracy that goes straight to the heart of the military. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) have to navigate the gloriously wacky sci-fi universe to unravel the truth and deliver justice.
“Bafflingly, almost inexplicably, the good features and the many bad ones coalesce into something coherent, and coherently fun.”
Now: the shortcomings. Perhaps the most glaring of which is DeHaan’s acting. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that he’s the worst blockbuster lead all year. His persona – a slightly gruff, charming, tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold – is laughably unconvincing. Affecting a half-whispered way of tossing off his lines, he sounds like a godawful parody of an action star. Indeed: after seeing Valerian, my brother made the comparison between DeHaan and the lead character in Kung Fury, a sledgehammer parody of 80s action films. The remark is shockingly accurate. His performance can’t be excused by the script, either, although be assured: it’s a bad, bad script. Cara Delevingne fares much better, reeling off the godawful lines of pseudo-sexual banter with far more charm and personality. Clive Owen is pretty ropey as a sinister military commander, while a game Ethan Hawke and Rihanna (as an extra-terrestrial Sally Bowles) round out the list of name stars.
But Valerian succeeds despite these pitfalls. The set pieces are inventive, particularly one near the start, in which Valerian infiltrates a black market in two dimensions simultaneously. The execution is imperfect, but it’s still a gleeful, exhilarating stretch of sci-fi action, the likes of which are rarely seen. The special effects throughout are terrific: colourful, varied, vibrant. The different locations, too, are sights to behold (although the ‘futuristic red light district’ has been done countless times before, including very similarly in Spielberg’s A.I.).
All things considered, it would be wrong to suggest that Valerian is a particularly good film. It is the sum of too many bad parts for that to be the case. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Bafflingly, almost inexplicably, the good features and the many bad ones coalesce into something coherent, and coherently fun. It’s unlikely Valerian would have been made on such a budget were it not for the success of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (its influence is felt within the very first minute, with a montage set to Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’), but for my money, Besson’s zany, rough-edged misfire is a much more enjoyable way to spend your time. Popular science fiction is a genre which has always blurred the line between greatness and mediocrity. A forensic analysis of the original Star Wars can reveal any number of horribly misjudged creative decisions. Valerian can be seen as the newest entry into this great tradition; a film riddled with mistakes, yes, but aware that somehow they don’t really matter.