The Art of Emotion: Dunkirk and Valerian Side-by-Side Review

One weekend mid-July. Two movies. One review. Trust me.

Last weekend, I was able to get out to the theaters twice to see two of the three big new releases. As a film nerd and a sci-fi nerd, I went with Dunkirk and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (though almost all reports are that Girls Trip is phenomenal, decisions had to be made). I was going to write a review of each, but laziness set in and I decided to pick one. Ultimately, I realized that a side-by-side analysis of the two could lead to some pretty interesting stuff, and that it would likely be cooler than two individual reviews. So here we are. The two ended up on very different ends of the box office (especially when you find out that Valerian cost $200,000), and there’s a reason for that. They do very different things and seek to accomplish very different goals. Unfortunately for Valerian, it wasn’t quite as good as films trying to accomplish similar goals (Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes). If you really take a good look at these movies, you can see that the choices each makes can tell you a lot about the film industry as a whole.

Though not opposite, Valerian and Dunkirk represent two very different kinds of films for two very different kinds of viewers. This is less about genre and more about things that are at the hearts of these two films: namely the characters, story, and general feel of them. 

One of the coolest parts of Dunkirk for me was the subtle but strong characterization of its nearly anonymous subjects. You walk out of that movie likely knowing exactly one character name, but somehow you understand each and every person. No one really grows or changes, but their dominant, persistent traits are all you need. The sailor/father played by Mark Rylance just really wants to help as many people as he can. Harry Styles is in it for his own survival. Valerian is more focused on what the characters are doing than who they are. Valerian and Laureline have a budding romance to sort out while the main adventure is going on, and all the character development comes from that. Valerian himself sees some pretty major growth, but its certainly not as clear as the simple Dunkirk characters, and the film as a whole sort of suffers. I cared more about Fionn Whitehead’s mostly silent character in Dunkirk than I did for Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne’s main characters in Valerian. A lot of that can be credited to the large difference in acting ability that exists (one has Tom Hardy in a supporting role, the other has Rihanna), but there’s also something to be said about the way they’re written. Christopher Nolan writes a good character. He understands the intricacies of motivation and behavior and is able to synthesize all of it. Valerian auteur Luc Besson seems much more focused on events, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Speaking of…

A lot happens in Valerian. Like, a lot a lot. Valerian and Laureline go on about five mini-adventures that make up their big one. There’s some cool and fun stuff going on here, making it clear that Besson wanted to take us on as many rides as possible to show off his enormous (and somewhat breathtaking) world. In contrast, very little really happens in Dunkirk. My friend (not a huge movie guy) turned to me and remarked on the complete lack of plot. While I disagreed with him, it is true that it’s a pretty simple story. On the Mole, the soldiers keep trying to escape but end up in the water every time. On the Sea, a father, his son, and a friend are determined to reach Dunkirk, but one rescued soldier suggests they should turn back. In the Air, a pilot running out of fuel gets in numerous dogfights. Very little happens beyond those descriptions. There’s no real dull moments because of Nolan’s creative interweaving of the storylines, but it amounts to complicated storytelling of a simple story. It could be (and probably should be) argued that Dunkirk is told in a much better and more sophisticated way, but I think more casual moviegoers may prefer the plot-heavy Valerian for the fast-paced nature of it.

So if you’re keeping score (which really isn’t the point of this article, so stop doing that), then strength of character goes to Dunkirk while strength of plot goes to Valerian. I’m of the belief that characters are much more important to a film’s actual quality than what goes on in a movie, but other people may disagree, so there has to be something else. What’s the X-factor? Why might someone prefer one movie to the other? Box office numbers suggest that Dunkirk blew Valerian out of the water (people who saw Dunkirk can decide if I intended that pun or not), but my non-film buff friends definitely have other opinions. The biggest difference between the two movies is the feel of them. Dunkirk will be a part of film rotations for a very, very long time and Valerian probably won’t be.

Why? It’s all about depth. If we’re using bodies of water, Valerian is a puddle where Dunkirk is the English Channel. There’s so many reasons why. Hans Zimmer’s score won’t have you humming it, but it did put audiences on the edge of their seats for an hour and forty-six minutes. Valerian‘s music does neither. The true villain of Dunkirk was the water. Nolan kept the Nazi’s invisible for most of the film to strike a more real terror into viewers. Besson supplies us with a military commander spitting a pretty familiar rhetoric. People often misconstrue depth as the effectiveness of the message of the film. The true depth is not the moral of either story, but how it makes you feel. Valerian supplies some pretty surface level fun while Dunkirk, supplying absolutely zero fun, provides some pretty intense feelings of stress, closeness, and the danger of war.

The thing is, you don’t have to pick between fun and depth. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, the ones that do both the best tend to be the ones that win the box office (Guardians of the Galaxy). I’m going to say outright that Valerian is just a worse movie than Dunkirk. Valerian probably would be my favorite movie right now if I was 12, but that’s not super high praise. The power to make you feel is why movies are an art, and Dunkirk has more of that in the first five minutes than Valerian does in its entirety. Still, Valerian has things to offer in its visuals and in the amazing world Besson creates, so less film nerd-y people might like that better. That’s not a bad thing.

The Verdict(s): As previously stated, these films are for different audiences. Want some popcorn and entertainment? Valerian is for you. Dunkirk is about twenty times more pretentious (admit it, it is), but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing when it provides a pretty visceral experience. See it in 70mm IMAX if you can. Although my preference leans me pretty heavily in one direction, I feel like the right move here is to pronounce both films:

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