Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Luc Besson is not a man who inspires a lot of moderate opinions. He is not a moderate man. He’s been referred to as the most American French filmmaker, a title he earned through a characteristically French kind of pigheadedness. He comes from a filmmaking tradition steeped in the idea of the auteur, and he definitely thinks of himself as one. The cardinal sin in his mind is compromise. He’s not subtle, and he hates holding back; he does what he does how he does it and he does it all balls to the wall. Knowing all this, hearing Luc Besson’s super-pricey space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets referred to as his “passion project” should give you pause no matter what your opinion of his movies.

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Valerian has been in the pipes for awhile, as it turns out. Twenty-odd years ago, Besson enlisted Jean-Claude Mézières, the writer of the French comic book Valerian et Laureline (a staple of Besson’s childhood), to work on Besson’s divisive cult classic The Fifth Element. According to Besson, Mézières asked him, “Why are you doing this shitty film? Why don’t you do Valerian?” With that very French encouragement, Besson wrote a story, waited a couple decades for digital effects technology to catch up with his vision, squirreled away money from his EuropaCorp production company, and then wrote another story. The movie that eventually came out of this struggle cost the equivalent of $180 million, neatly taking the record for both the most expensive non-US production and the most expensive independent film ever made.

Was it worth it? Uhh…

Valerian & Laureline: The “Too Baked to Be Out in Public” Chronicles

Visually, Valerian is a stunner. Besson took extraordinary care in the 3000+ special effects shots, rendering a gorgeously strange world filled to bursting with majestic environments, complex architecture, sleek machines, and bizarre creatures. Meticulously crafted sets and one ostentatious costume after another do their portion of the heavy lifting as well. The Valerian comic is often compared to Star Wars, and Valerian is more Star Wars than Star Wars, in that its visual palette is drenched with the sort of pulpy retro space-opera aesthetic that the Star Wars series isn’t really interested in doing anymore.

Sadly, though, the visual experience of Valerian amounts to a load of empty calories: a fizzy sugar high that dissipates quickly, leaving you hungering in vain for something more substantial. Which is to say that all the non-visual aspects of the movie are utter crap.

I dunno about you, but I’m just so baked, oh my God…

I wanted to start this paragraph with “Valerian is about…”, but it’s not really about anything. There are no themes, no lessons, anemic conflict, and the characters don’t change over the course of the movie. I don’t even know if it has a plot, per se. It has a story, certainly: a bunch of things do happen. And I suppose if you pressed me I could answer questions about why these things were happening, so I guess in that sense it does, technically, have a plot. But I never really felt satisfied by the internal logic of the sequence of events I was watching. Monsieur Besson’s attention is too often pulled away by all the shinies to impress any real narrative vision on his movie.

In fairness, they are extremely shiny.

Basically, in the 28th century, Earth is part of a vaguely defined interplanetary federation whose capital is a gigantic space station called Alpha, the titular “city of a thousand planets”, so named for its cosmopolitan mix of cultures from all over the galaxy. Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, respectively) are two human detective/agents of a vaguely defined space cop force, sent to investigate an expanding radioactive death zone in the center of Alpha. They have a bunch of weekly-serial style space adventures and stumble upon a conspiracy to cover up a genocide.

The genocided aliens come from the idyllic planet Mül, which exploded thirty years previously and whose reigning princess’s soul jumps into Valerian’s body at the beginning of the movie, but that’s not really important. The Müllians fish for pearls made of huge amounts of concentrated energy, and an animal native to their planet can magically replicate anything it eats, but those details aren’t really important either. There’s a whole lot in this movie that’s just sort of there. In his eagerness, Luc Besson wrote many times more characters and plot devices than he could have ever used. Chekhov’s Guns pile up at his feet, begging in vain to be fired.

These robot dudes control Alpha’s banking and IT, and you will never need to know that.

Dane DeHaan as Valerian is destined to enter the Bad Casting Hall of Infamy, alongside John Wayne’s Genghis Khan. Everything about him belies the character we’re supposed to be getting. He’s supposed to be a high-ranking super-cop, but he doesn’t project the least bit of authority or competence. He’s supposed to be a happy-go-lucky, roguish type, and instead affects a vacant, bovine surliness like that of a teenager who stayed up too late last night gaming. His one-liners all clatter to the ground like anchors. Every time he opens his mouth I can’t wait for him to shut up again.

Cara Delevingne’s almost as bad. Just as dour and joyless as her counterpart, and never certain whether she’s supposed to be the by-the-bookie or the loose cannon, her Laureline is the all the more frustrating for the few picoseconds of human warmth that Besson is occasionally able to wring out of her, prompting the question of whether she sucks or he. As to who’s responsible for her and Valerian’s shriveling lack of romantic chemistry (did I mention they’re lovers? for the whole movie?), it’s safe to say that both suck equally.

Unbelievably too baked.

The rest of the cast is filled out with boring douches (Sam Spruell’s put-upon commander is particularly dull), with the occasional zany, scene-grabbing character who always disappears in a minute or two. Bizarrely, Herbie Hancock is in the cast, and even more bizarrely, he’s firmly in the “boring” category. Why oh why would you cast the Watermelon Man in a movie like this and not make him a nine-armed alien playing insane space jazz?

The plot of Valerian is so full of holes it’s practically see-through. I could talk about a couple, but I recently had an epiphany: as much as people love to complain about plot holes, the holes themselves are almost never the real problem. It’s not that people can’t suspend their disbelief; it’s that the movie didn’t give them enough reason to. If the movie’s good, people will overlook damn near anything. People love Lord of the Rings even though the Eagles should’ve just flown the rings to Mordor. People love Harry Potter even though no one ever tried shooting Voldemort with, like, just a regular gun. (Is there any reason a wizard can’t use a gun? Train a wizard sniper, hide out in a field and dome him, he’ll never expect it. “But he has Horcruxes, he’ll come back!” Well then, fuckin’ shoot him again! He’ll figure out what’s up eventually. )

Okay, if you insist, I’ll talk about a couple:

1) The entire middle act of the movie is eaten up by side-quests occasioned by Valerian crashing his spaceship while trying to find the weird aliens, after which Valerian realizes that the alien princess’s soul inside him (which has been there for the entire movie) can guide him there.

Definitely too baked for this.

2) A gelatinous, shapeshifting alien played by Rihanna is killed by a spear. To repeat: A gelatinous blob. Is killed. By. A. Spear.

3) No one has ever heard of the genocided aliens that figure so heavily into the plot, and information about the planet they come from is heavily restricted. But the weird matter-replicating animal native to that same planet? The one that has the name of the planet in its own name? Everyone seems to know what that is.

But as I mentioned, a movie’s plot can be far-fetched, or even assault logic itself, and still satisfy. Valerian‘s doesn’t. It’s all over the place, like Luc Besson came up with this whole laundry list of ideas and just decided to do them all. The world-building is wretched; it feels over-explained, but then you think back on it later and realize you know almost nothing about anything. The pacing is horrible; you get overwhelming info-dumps and then long sections of the movie where nothing happens. Frequently, the movie gets bogged down in RPG-style fetch quests where a character will have to get this thing for this person in order to get this other thing, and it does that until you’re screaming at the TV to move it along. If I were being charitable, I’d say that Besson was trying to pay homage to the episodic nature of both the comic and the weekly adventure serials that inspired it, but more realistically, he just takes any opportunity to make some bonkers effects-heavy shit happen.

“Halt! Dog Robot Police! We heard someone was getting baked in here!”

Valerian went down in flames at the box office, as I suspected it might—it made a mere $45 million in America. I would have hoped that Luc Besson would learn something about keeping his own worst instincts in check and maybe going back to making slick crime thrillers, but he’s too old and too stubborn to learn anything. And because he only lost his own company’s money, he doesn’t have to. Here’s hoping that, at the very least, Dane DeHaan is sent back to the minors until he can spit out an action hero-worthy one-liner without choking on it.

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  • Derek Johns

    My experience with this movie was pretty much the same with a couple differences. I was actually hopeful for this movie at the beginning with the Space Oddity opening and actually like the part where the astronaut meets the first alien and all the understandable nervousness he feels at being the center of such game changing moment pretty much goes away with a simple handshake.

    Then of course Dane Dehaan had to spoil it by starting to talk and giving one of the clunkiest character expositions I’ve ever seen.

    The other thing that really bothered me not mentioned here is Rihanna’s character. What I personally found infuriating about her was her death and not even the spear thing. It’s that she was way more interesting than Dehaan or Delevinge but then got killed pretty much the very second she was no longer essential to the plot. I mean I’ve seen and heard characters be used as literal props or plot devices before but seldom as shameless as this movie and I swear I rewinded that scene and still couldn’t find where she could’ve possibly have gotten stabbed.

    • Tyler Peterson

      “whoops I mustve gotten mortally wounded and no one saw it kbai”

  • CaptainCalvinCat

    Oh, just shut up. ^^ Gotta say, I really liked the movie. It was something different and if you’re pissed, that Rihanna got killed by a spear… in the original comic Laureline shot a Blob-Guy with a gun, so that he reverted back to his normal form… meh.

    • Tyler Peterson

      Mr. Cat, I mean this in the most respectful, least snarky way possible: why did you tell me this?

      I ask because I get comments like this pretty regularly, and I never know how to respond. I write up a column stating my opinion and somebody chimes in like ” well MY opinion is DIFFERENT!!!” OK, like…what am I supposed to do with that? Opinions aren’t true or false; we can’t argue them.

      Like, if you said one of my arguments in support of my opinion was weak, or if I interpreted something in the film wrong, *that’s* something. We can have a discussion about that. But just “I believe differently than you believe!” Cool, you’re allowed, go nuts. Life’s a rich tapestry or whatever.

      The closest you came to an actual argument was “the blob’s death is less stupid in the comics” which, I would retort, isn’t relevant because this movie isn’t a comic; it’s a movie.

      • CaptainCalvinCat

        Mr. Peterson – the reason I said that in this comment-section (hey, it is a comment-section, which means, we can comment on stuff, that you wrote, right?) is to show, that there are some people, that actually liked that movie. But if you don’t want to read through comments that dare to have a different opinion… well, I guess, you can alway choose to not read them?

        • Tyler Peterson

          No need for defensiveness. I’m genuinely not trying to stir shit here. My point is that comments sections exist to facilitate a discussion about the article or its subject matter, and as I mentioned, simply saying “I don’t agree” with neither context nor elaboration is the opposite of having a discussion. To quote a great English philosopher, “An argument isn’t just contradiction.”

          Let’s try this approach: why did you like Valerian? Do you feel that I made any erroneous or unfair criticisms of it? If so, which? If not, why don’t these flaws compromise the movie as a whole?

          • Xander

            This is one of those movies I’ve really wanted to see. As you said, Mr. Peterson, it looks gorgeous; I’m just disappointed to hear that there’s not much substance to the style. The biggest complaints I saw in reviews prior to this was generally that the movie was let down by the actors playing the protagonists.
            Captain, please do chime in with what you like about the movie. As I said, I want to see this movie, and a counterpoint with what’s good about it would be very nice to see.

          • ppi23

            I think adults get let down by the casting decisions [#Heart DeLavigne], but I wonder how kids enjoyed movie because the baby-actors they chose to play in lead super-agent kind-of roles felt like it was done deliberately, like they chose the younguns as intentionally as the casting agent did in the movie: Agent Cody Banks.

          • ppi23

            Basically, I wonder if I was watching this movie for the first time as kid, would I have identified more and felt more attached to the two main leads

          • CaptainCalvinCat

            That’s quite true – so, why did I like the flick?

            Well, let me answer the question, what I didn’t like about the movie first: Cara Delevingne doesn’t have red hair. That’s the only thing. the rest was quite cool – it was an amalgamation of two actual Valerian & Laureline Comics (“Ambassador of the shadows” and “Empire of a thousand planets”) and the characters in the movie are very close to the characters in the comic. Valerian IS kind of a doofus, Laureline IS very kickass, Cara D. – besides not having red hair – is awesome as Laureline and Dane DeHahn is… well, he’s a bit of an acting automaton, not unlike Til Schweiger.

            Like I said, I red the comics first, watched the movie later, and I knew, that people would riff on it, people would say that it’s bad, but in actuallity all of this “it’s baaad” is in the comics, too. the comics are very episodic, most of the time it ends with some commentary on mankind or simply with Laureline having the last laugh.

            In the comics they sometimes are lovers, sometimes they are not – in “Ambassador of the shadows”, Laureline grabs Valerian and kisses him, when she saves him, in another comic, she’s pretty miffed, that he had sex with a space goddess, but in other comics it’s more like “yeah, there is a chemistry between us, but we don’t address it that much”.

          • Xander

            Thank you for this. It seems like much of your love for the movie stems from your love of the comics and how faithful the movie is to those comics, which is a rare thing indeed these days for a movie to actually be faithful to the source material.
            As someone who’s never read the comics, I’m wondering if part of the problem with the movie is accessibility for non-fans. That said, I do still want to see it, but I’m just afraid I’ll find it too disjointed without that familiarity with the source material.

          • CaptainCalvinCat

            I’d recommend, that you get your hands on at least one of the comics – they’re quite expensive (30 Euros), but on the other hand, you get three comics and a bit of backstory concerning the creators – for example, that all of the stuff, that Star Wars did, Valerian did first. Laureline wears a Slave-Leia-Like costume in one issue, the creatures from “Ambassador of the Shadows” – the information-brokers- clearly look like Watto, sometimes the ship looks like the Milennium Falcon – and all of that, before Star Wars was even a thing.

            So – yerah, Valerian and Laureline (or Valerian and Veronique) is one of the very pioneers of (slight pulpy) Sci-Fi… And I’m saying that as a Trekkie. ^^

          • Xander

            Amazon is showing them for $20 American, which is a pretty typical price for a TPB. I’ll probably see if I can get them through the library first; however, I’ll try to make sure I read one before I go to the movie.

          • CaptainCalvinCat

            I’d recommend “Ambassador of the Shadows”, “the land without stars”,”empire of a thousand planets” or just plain, old “Bad dreams” if you want to have a good read.

          • Toby Clark

            ‘To quote a great English philosopher, “An argument isn’t just contradiction.”‘
            It can be.

          • Zoe Papillon

            this was the valerian of counter arguments

  • ppi23

    YOU ARE STUCK ON A DESERTED ISLAND. Pick the ONE Sci-Fi film you’re allowed to have:
    A) Valerian B) Avatar or C) Prometheus

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      Valerian.

    • Greenhornet

      Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe.
      Never saw your choices.

    • mamba

      Which one’s case has the most paper ads shoved in it?

      Because I’ll be burning them to cook food LONG before I’d ever re-watch any of those turkeys!

    • Xander

      I’d go with Valerian. Prometheus was a huge disappointment, and everything I saw about Avatar turned me off, from the plot synopses to the art style. Plus, it’s post-Titanic Cameron. Has the man done anything truly, objectively good since Titanic?
      Also, Titanic was not good.

  • Vince Maes

    Mr. Peterson – the reason I said that in this comment-section (hey, it is a comment-section, which means, we can comment on stuff, that you wrote, right?) is to show, that there are some people, that actually liked that movie. But if you don’t want to read through comments that dare to have a different opinion

  • Mortimer Brewster

    Luc Besson is at his best when he’s nowhere near sci-fi.

    Writing and producing movies about French Taxis is his strength.

    • ppi23

      [Script]– “We almost began to drive, when all of a sudden we decided to go on strike, because it was Tuesday. We always strike on Tuesday. So I poured myself a wine to make setting up my road-barriers to block all the traffic in the streets all the more French.

      Fin…[French Taxis Movie]

      • Mortimer Brewster

        Needs more parkour.

  • StarlightForPrincess

    I honestly enjoyed this a bit.
    It’s not great, but it’s fun enough.