Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film set in a colorful, utterly bananas space opera universe, which is unfortunately ill-served by both Luc Besson’s direction and writing, though these problems pale in comparison to its repulsive fuckboy of a protagonist, Valerian.
(For the short version of this post via Twitter rant, see this thread.)
I didn’t go into Valerian with much in the way of expectations. I haven’t read the source material, though my housemate who has was tentatively excited about the film. Since I knew it was going to be directed by Luc Besson, I went in hoping for something as fun and charming and weird as The Fifth Element, under the assumption that it would also come with a helping of racism and sexism. Well, it is weird and colorful, if neither fun nor charming—and I’m sad to report it delivered on the racism and sexism as well.
The story is pretty simple: Major Valerian and his partner Sergeant(?) Laureline are federal agents sent on a mission to retrieve stolen property, a cute little animal known as a Mul Converter. It’s the last of its species, since the supposedly uninhabited-by-sentient-life planet of Mul was destroyed almost thirty years ago. Of course, from the start of the morning, we know that Mul actually had a thriving civilization of tall, thin people made out of glitter, called Pearls, on it. Valerian and Laureline bring the Mul Converter back to Alpha (the city of a thousand planets) and find out that a strange radiation zone that kills everyone who enters it has begun expanding at the center of the city. Their investigation of this mystery leads them deep into a cover up that someone has an interest in protecting with deadly force.
The plot sounds interesting, right? Or at least reasonably so for a scifi effects spectacle. There’s some holes in it here and there, but I thought at least the structure avoided a lot of pitfalls that tend to come with far future or space opera scifi, where things get too arcane for the audience to be able to build an understanding of the universe while tracking a convoluted plot. Unfortunately, the actors stumble through the film, delivering their lines like they’ve all been shot up with horse tranquilizers, with the only relief the occasional spittle-flecked moment of self-righteous yelling before the monotony returns.
If that had been the only problem, it would have been almost forgivable, because the background is satisfactorily bananapants for a space opera world, and unlike Jupiter Ascending, it wasn’t actively boring. However, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has a major problem that Jupiter Ascending didn’t, in that the protagonist is vomitously unlikable and tries to pull the plot off course at every turn.
See, the movie starts with agents Valerian and Laureline having a… weird encounter where they’re both in bathing suits and sort of rolling around and wrestling, at which point Valerian embarks on his ceaseless campaign to get Laureline to marry him. Their relationship made absolutely no sense from the get-go, and veered immediately into intensely creepy territory: we’re basically talking a higher-ranked coworker persistently bugging his lower-ranked partner for a relationship. It was beyond gross. Worse, at basically every turn, something would happen in the plot, and before anyone could react or move forward, Valerian would immediately twist the situation into why won’t you marry me Laureline.
This was not a romance. This was the skeevy, passive-aggressive stalking of a fuckboy who believes he’s been friend-zoned. It made my skin crawl. And from what my houemate has now told me about the graphic novels, it really feels like what got put onto film wasn’t so much Valerian and Laureline as fanfiction written by someone who fantasized all through high school about fucking Laureline. I am not here to shame anyone for their wish fulfillment fanfic; I’ve written plenty myself. But I still know it’s not something that deserves a multimillion dollar film budget and a wide theatrical release.
Valerian’s aggressive skeeviness covers the expected sexism angle nicely, with the added bonus of Valerian’s trip through the red light district, where in the far future we’re still apparently still catering exclusively to straight male tastes. There’s a burlesque performance by a shapechanging alien named Bubble that pivots neatly from the sexism and into the racism. Bubble is played by Rihanna and for all her extremely short screen time, she’s the best developed character in the entire film. She gets an actual background, and motivations. After revealing her actual alien form, Valerian asks her to go back to “normal”—as in her super sexy Rihanna form. She also [SPOILER FOLLOWS, HIGHLIGHT IF YOU WANT TO KNOW] inexplicably dies after helping Valerian in a way that feels like a complete afterthought, though before her death she’s honored to get her skills as an artist validated by Valerian. Megabarf. Bubble helps Valerian rescue Laureline from a group of apparently “savage” aliens who [SPOILER] want to eat her brain, and the coding on the costuming and aesthetic for the aliens is pretty goddamn 1940s jungle witch doctor set. So that was nice.
Valerian also suffers from a problem many big budget scifi movies have, though not as badly as Jupiter Ascending did—it contains several action sequences that add absolutely nothing to the plot, and really feel like they got tucked in because they’ve gone the requisite number of pages and we need some more explosions. It’s particularly notable during the sequences that were almost entirely CGI; I find those extremely difficult to follow, action-wise, and mentally tune them out. The VFX department is showing off in a way that the human eye can’t follow and the brain can’t care about. For example, there’s an interminable battle sequence over the planet Mul that I couldn’t have given less of a shit about because it’s unclear why the battle is being fought, who is fighting it, or what the actual stakes are.
That said, if you could just surgically remove the title character entirely, this would be an almost enjoyable film. The opening sequence, which shows Alpha being built up from its humble beginnings as an Earth-orbiting space station, was lovely, and hopeful, and fun. Too bad the rest of the movie couldn’t live up to that promise.
You’ll notice that I keep bringing up Jupiter Ascending in this review. The movies are very comparable, I think. They’re both delightfully weird space opera universes that get crushed under the weight of their own film flaws. Jupiter Ascending had great characters and then got crushed under the weight of its shit pacing; its greatest sin was being boring. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had absolute shit for characters to serve its mediocre-but-I’m-not-expecting-great-
And a small side rant:
One thing I can’t help noticing is that in both of these films, the screenwriting credit goes solely to the directors. It’s endlessly frustrating that in an industry where story is supposedly king, there’s a real desire to make people whose primary skillset and interest is in writing those stories disappear. Maybe there would have been no saving either film, but their most fatal flaws (Jupiter Ascending’s pacing, Valerian’s shitty protagonist and paper thin characters) are just the sort of things that writers, or at least good writers, focus on.
Hire some fucking screenwriters already. And listen to what they say.