In its second week in theaters, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets dropped 60%. Tent pole films tend to be front-loaded, but that’s a bad drop, especially since the opening weekend was also sour. Valerian is not launching a new space-fantasy franchise—unless China can save it—and it will just go down as another failed attempt, like Jupiter Ascending (a movie with which it has a lot in common). Over the weekend Emily Yoshida asked “Why Didn’t Valerian…Find Its Audience?", and posits that while the success of comic book movies, particularly Marvel, makes it look like nerd culture is in control, really these are calculated efforts to make nerd sh*t appeal to a mainstream that is still afraid of REAL nerd sh*t, like Valerian. That, lacking Marvel-style self-referential jokes, Valerian doesn’t appeal outside the hardcore nerd bubble. It’s an interesting point, but it doesn’t account for the winning sincerity of Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, or the success of Avatar.
But Yoshida points to a second element I do think is a HUGE problem—casting. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne headline Valerian, and while they are both perfectly fine actors, they are WAY out of their depth. DeHaan plays the titular Valerian, a space cop who is trying to stop a space colony—formed from the International Space Station, pushed into deep space—from being exploded by an unknown evil. Or something. Plot’s a little blurry. What does stand out in sharp relief is that Dane DeHaan is entirely the wrong person to sell “smirking space rogue”. This is a Han Solo-ish character who is, it is immediately established, a big time space-player. He loves his partner, Laureline (Delevingne), but she doesn’t trust his sincerity because she’s seen him love-and-leave scores of space-dwellers. DeHaan doesn’t have the swagger or the smirk to pull this off, and the only time he really locks in as Valerian is when he argues for following protocol, even if it’s unpleasant, because he is a soldier.
Delevingne doesn’t fare much better, as Laureline is barely a character in her own right. In The Fifth Element, Leeloo is a fascinating oddity from the moment she appears on screen, a mix of deadly capability and childlike wonder, whose feelings are quickly evoked and whose intelligence can’t be quantified. In contrast, Laureline is…tough? Yeah, I guess she’s kind of tough, mainly because Delevingne has a proud tomboy’s strut and that’s about as much room as she’s given to work with. In comic book form, Laureline inspired Princess Leia, but in movie form she inspires nothing except wardrobe envy for a series of fantastic space swimsuits. Delevingne is TRYING—she actually does have the swagger and the smirk for this kind of stuff—but the picture just isn’t there for her.
Without engaging leads to anchor it, Valerian needs a strong story to support it, but that doesn’t exist either. Luc Besson is a great world-builder, and like the Wachowskis and Jupiter Ascending—or his efforts on The Fifth Element—Besson throws himself into establishing the world of Valerian. Textually, he’s successful. The opening scene setting up the “city of a thousand planets” is TERRIFIC, and there’s a fun bit with a market that exists in another dimension. There are a lot of fun ideas in Valerian, but the central story revolves around the destruction of a race of androgynous blue aliens, which smacks of Avatar. I’m not sure that audiences are afraid of sincere geekery so much as, in 2017, Besson’s vision is much less unique than it was in 1997, when nothing else in cinema looked like The Fifth Element.
Valerian didn’t fail for any one reason. Not having engaging leads is a problem, not having a clear and compelling story is a problem, and at this point, it looks a little too much like a hodgepodge of other sci-fi/fantasy movies. I’m not wholly convinced by Yoshida’s argument that audiences are actually afraid of the real geek sh*t, but they do keep rejecting these original sci-fi/fantasy concepts—or lesser-known, in Valerian’s case, as it’s based on a French comic book. The right actor in the right role at the right time could probably launch a successful, original sci-fi/fantasy story, but we’re never going to know unless we keep trying. Given their repeated failure, though, one wonders how long producers will keep trying.
Here's Cara at LAX the other day.