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They just can’t quite carry it.

So I was very in for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s a bunch of reasons, but foremost among them is that I fucking love this kind of whiz bang, go for broke science fiction. Throw me all the weird tech and weirder aliens. I am down for the French comic book sensibilities, especially the ridiculous fashion, and I’ll even put up with the clunkiest dialogue this side of a Syfy Original. This is my kind of movie and if there’s any kind of nested audience for the Valerians of the world, it’s me.

However, this is no Jupiter Ascending situation. It’s safe to say that if you didn’t like that movie, you will loathe this one. In most ways, they are dissimilar, but it’s hard to not be reminded of the slightly more serious but also more coherent and well-plotted Wachowski Sisters’ foray into manic space opera. The same genre DNA gave birth to both films, though Valerian is a direct adaptation of a seminal French comic while for Jupiter, the comic Valerian and Laureline was just one of many influences it wore on its sleeve. Many might also compare this one to the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but I’d caution against that since kicking this movie while its down (it really bombed) to that extent just seems cruel.

If you like imaginative space opera and come for just the visuals, world-building, and literally hundreds of weird and wonderful aliens, you may be able to put aside this movie’s narrative problems and enjoy it. I mostly did. Valerian is dizzyingly ambitious, so it’s tempting to brush aside that it doesn’t really work. And while the story is nothing special, it plays out in an offbeat way and is packed to the brim with worthwhile diversion. There’s hardly a frame in the first half of this movie that won’t light a scifi fan’s mind up. It has that same special quality Jupiter Ascending had where every five minutes, there’s a new idea that you could make a whole movie out of. For example, the concepts and mechanics of Big Market, a virtual bazaar in another dimension, are just a set-piece here, but the whole of the upcoming Ready Player One will deal with somewhat similar ideas. Valerian has imagination to spare but suffers from an overindulgence in its own poorly executed dramatic core, which aggressively sucks, and also fails to trust its own plot enough to avoid a third act recap sequence that, frankly, was where the movie really fell apart for me. I love Luc Besson, even when he makes a bad movie (Lucy) and while I might summarize Valerian as “The 5th Element for kids” and while that might sound good… it’s only really two thirds good. That said, the opening ten minutes are straight up wonderful and honestly worth the whole movie.

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The comic also influenced Star Wars so there’s a nice lived-in feel to a lot of the fashion, tech, and settings.

That opening sequence is all about how Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets (really a big space station) came to be. It starts with familiar imagery of the International Space Station, scored to David Bowie’s Major Tom (perfectly, I might add). It progresses through eras, with the costuming going from the realism of say Interstellar to the outlandish colors and ornate decoration we’ll see throughout the rest of the movie. We see that meeting after meeting, first among ourselves but eventually with stranger and stranger beings, humans reach out a hand of friendship and cooperation. It’s a beautiful statement about the possibilities of doing things in that spirit and reminds us of what the best parts of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Star Trek Federation looks like.

Then a second prologue begins, this time on a very alien tropical world. Human-like beings frolic on beaches, gathering luminescent pearls and playing with cute creatures. We briefly get to know a young woman, who seems to enjoy her life and why shouldn’t she? She lives in paradise. Then disaster strikes. The planet is bombarded with broken ships and debris. Some of the humanoids hide in one, but others are trapped outside as a massive ship sets off a huge explosion that seems to destroy the planet. As the woman we’ve been watching dies in the blast, she lets out her own blast and we finally meet our titular hero… about twenty minutes in. Just in time for a quick introduction to the two characters we’ll be spending most of our movie with.

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Based on these guys, I suspect the comic may have influenced Futurama as well.

Those first minutes are weird and wonderful and when they end, we’re briefly introduced to the parts of the movie that just plain don’t work. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are partners, some kind of special military unit, and they fly around in their ship arguing about just how much of an asshole Valerian is. He is trying to convince Laureline that he can settle down and commit to her, but she is pretty skeptical and aloof. He’s like that creepy guy at work who just knows you’d like him if you just gave him a chance. All of this dialogue pretty much rings false, by the way, because the movie does not commit to the idea that Valerian is a bit of a creep, or at least a cad. It seems that the movie wants us to think he is roguish and charming, but alas. The lines are written in an arch, over the top way (could be due to Besson’s first language being French, who knows?) that seems to be going for Saturday Morning Cartoon but often can’t rise above The Room. As soon as you realize that a significant part of this movie is going to hinge on an increasingly ludicrous “will they or won’t they?”, you’re pretty much going into damage control mode as a viewer.

Fortunately the first half of the movie gets distracted from Valerian and Laureline’s bullshit early and often. They have a mission that puts them on a collision course with the “Pearls”, the surviving tropical humanoids, and a military conspiracy to cover up what really happened to their planet. The whole movie takes place over a day, basically, and mostly works as a “day in the life” story for these characters. For all its faults, I think Valerian strikes a good balance between feeling like an episode of a serial and having some stakes of its own. I think it all could have worked a lot better with more charismatic leads and better dialogue. Imagining Valerian with the kind of approach that Guardians of the Galaxy has… well, remember what I said at the beginning of this review.

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Alpha is a pretty cool mix of Coruscant and NYC from The 5th Element.

Before we even get to Alpha, though, there’s an extended sequence on a planet where there’s this extra-dimensional marketplace called Big Market (I mentioned this earlier). The whole thing is intensely creative and interesting, showcasing ideas and visuals we’ve never really seen in a movie before. The people who visit are essentially visiting a big fenced in chunk of empty desert, but they put on VR gear and see a thriving metropolis that actually exists in another dimension. There’s a bunch of ways to interact with that dimension, even to cross over, and this sequence deftly explores this in a way that brings the audience in without having to pause and explain things. It’s a very promising start and it’s helped out not only by the visuals and ideas, but by game performances from John Goodman (voicing a big scary alien) and the leads, who are probably at their best in this sequence. If the whole movie had been like this, it would have been a sleeper hit.

I really like Dane DeHaan in general, but I don’t know if he really pulls Valerian off. The guy is definitely supposed to be an asshole who is kind of full of himself but the movie never really commits to this enough, nor to the idea that Laureline is actually the competent one who props the stories of heroic Valerian up with her support. They both fuck up and to the movie’s credit, these parts are handled in dialogue in a surprisingly mature way (“it’s okay, everybody makes mistakes”) rather than being mined for melodrama. They’re pretty much always on the same side, helping each other and rescuing each other even when they don’t agree. However, I think the hot takes about this movie going for a Green Hornet (the sidekick is the real hero) sort of situation are overstated. Valerian is plenty heroic and he’s not quite enough of an asshole to be interesting for that dimension of his personality. Laureline is certainly more organized, but she’s also stiff and aloof. They’re both mostly annoying, caught between affectations of character and performance that just don’t blend very well except in a few small instances, examples of which are difficult to recall. Both he and Laureline feel too young to be this accomplished and integral to the military hierarchy. A hierarchy that barely makes sense, by the way, especially when Valerian and Laureline swing wildly between open defiance and poorly executed last minute “loyal soldier” hesitation.

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Obvious bad guy is obvious.

Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen… what the fuck happened to you, man?) was present at the battle that destroyed Mul, the home planet of the Pearls (both the humanoids and their actual pearls). The MacGuffin of the movie is a “Mul Converter”, one of those cute little lizards, which can duplicate matter biologically. The pearls of Mul are incredibly powerful energy sources, so there’s that. This stuff coalesces into a very on the nose and clumsy political message about exploitation, imperialism, and the geopolitics of energy. There’s nothing really wrong with that, or with the plot itself, but it really didn’t need that recap because it’s not that convoluted. The execution makes the themes, such as they are, feel flat and boring. It’s not got much of a real point of view or any kind of commitment to really hammering home a point. It’s a lot like the Star Trek reboots, particularly Into Darkness, in that way. It feels like you can’t really do broad critiques of American (or Western) military adventurism and its consequences without trying to do at least something different with it. We’re over it. It’s a trope that’s been recycled so many times in the last ten or fifteen years that it feels practically obligatory for a genre movie to go there.

In a similar, and more ironic way, it’s hard to really make and sell a movie like Valerian in general. Everything that’s old is new again, but “this is the thing that influenced all those other things which introduced you to this thing’s tropes and aesthetics” just isn’t enough. You need a strong movie or the currency of being “the scifi comic that started it all” falls on its face, which is exactly what happens here and usually happens when studio execs try to sell audiences on the pedigree of a thing they’ve never heard of before. People will watch this movie and say it rips off Guardians or Star Wars because, though it dares to be weirder in many ways, it doesn’t tell a story that feels uniquely “Valerian and Laureline”.

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The Pearls are these androgynous, innocent, ethereal creatures that are somewhat more than they seem.

The exception to some of the above is the Pearls themselves. At first glance, they seem like coastal Na’vi and they certainly do share a certain amount of “noble savage” troping with Cameron’s brand of space elves. The Pearls are an innocent, ignorant species that don’t even know there are other planets. They live in harmony with nature, they give back, and they sit on an unspoiled paradise with an infinitely renewable energy source that they can’t possibly fathom the importance of (beyond what it means to them). Sound familiar? Up to this point, it’s the same recycled shit that goes back to Dances With Wolves and probably even further. But something interesting happens when Valerian and Laureline finally meet the Pearls and find out the truth. We get an interlude that tells the story of what happened to Emperor Haban-Limai (Elizabeth Debicki) and his people after he had to watch his daughter die.

The stuff about her spirit going into Valerian’s body is kind of interesting until it’s played for a cheap gender joke, but mostly what’s key here is how the Pearls adapted to their new situation and took their destiny into their own hands. Marooned in a derelict human ship, the Pearls become a formidable force of survivors and not just another stand-in for aboriginal exploitation and victimhood. There’s a rather nuanced representation of that aboriginal populations never go meekly, but always resist the forces of assimilation, genocide, and exploitation. They are not killers, but they aren’t babes in the woods either. The Pearls had this whole movie of their own happening at the margins of this one, as they planned and prepared a daring smash and grab using their ultra cool nonlethal goo guns. That story is executed in a sloppy flashback and infodump, unfortunately, but at least it’s there. The “innocent savages” fighting back against the technologically superior oppressors with the help of a “caught between” ally is an old, boring trope but I do think Valerian manages to retool it a little by emphasizing the experience of the Pearls over Valerian’s experience with them, which is actually surprisingly sparse given how much of the movie hinges on the Pearls. So if there’s a flaw, it’s that these pieces of the movie we’re watching are kind of disconnected until they aren’t, much the way a noire or detective story plays out. But the mechanics are frustrating in a movie where the plot and central mystery just can’t carry enough water for the reveal to have a real impact. But that said, I like that while Valerian and Laureline help the Pearls, they ultimately save themselves and are their own heroes. They don’t need a Jake Sully and that was kind of refreshing.

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Most of the side characters are colorful if not exactly memorable.

I’ve already talked about why Valerian and Laureline don’t really work very well as characters. They’re pretty shallow and so is the supporting cast, which are by and large cameos anyway. Bubble (Rihanna) gets to shine for a bit, but the movie rushes the work in solidifying her as Valerian’s ally and goes for cheap emotional beats it doesn’t earn. Plus, the way it introduces her is kind of distracting and even a bit gross? That said, Rihanna is pretty charismatic and game in the role, and no I don’t just mean her dance routine, which wants to be more than gratuitous and fails. The Pearls and Bubble are kind of the movie’s main supporting cast, along with the bland and uninteresting human military wonks who try to order Valerian around. Sam Spruell plays against type as the guy who looks bad but is good, but the pretty young nothings surrounding him never rise above points for diversity since only the leads in this movie are white. Also kind of gross.

There’s an extended rescue scene where Valerian tries to save Laureline from having her head eaten. They fight primitive orc-like aliens, the other side of the noble savage trope coin shared with the Pearls, and Bubble is “injured in the fight” but we never see it. We only know because she vaguely alludes to it seconds before dying, a moment that is supposed to be emotional and sad but is so unearned that it’s actually kind of comedic and you half-expect Bubble to be just doing one last performance to get herself away from these batshit humans. Who could blame her? This death scene is so bafflingly dumb that I was again taken out of the movie just when I was starting to get back on board. The sequence with the orc-aliens is pretty fun and the right kind of goofy, much like Big Market. One step forward, two steps back.

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These robots are a major highlight, very cool looking.

All in all, Valerian is going to be dismissed as a big fat flop. A colorful, ambitious, and ultimately well-meaning novelty. It maybe deserves a bit better than that, since your average moviegoer tends to forgive far worse movies than this, just look at the bank Transformers 5 made. The unfortunate thing is that Valerian is a pretty good quick example for people who generally think movies like it can’t help but suck. When even a guy like me has to struggle to defend it, you know things have gotten awkward.

But that said, Valerian never feels phoned in. Its story and characters should have been designed to be less broadly appealing (especially because they fail to be) and more in line with the aesthetics and energy of the world built around them. There’s a singular quality to this universe that should be reflected in the stories told in it. They need to dare to be weird and specific, which is something I think Jupiter Ascending did pretty well and they did it by remixing Disney characters and tropes. If that’s possible, anything is, and the guy who made The 5th Element should know that. I get that Valerian was a very expensive movie, and money makes people skittish about taking risks or getting too far from what is assumed to be the audience comfort zone. The thing is, establishing what an audience will take is a two-way street. Marvel proves that it’s a relationship, a dialogue, and should never be a didactic policy. That always fails, time and again, when they try to mine that sweet and profitable nerdy genre demographic. If you don’t dot your i’s and cross your fucking t’s, if you go broad but forget to not be shallow, only the people like me will be there for you. And we will walk away disappointed.

 

 

 

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