I am a science fiction nerd. I carry the sci-fi nerd card, attend the conventions, and wear the t-shirts. So my excitement over Luc Besson being back in full swing with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets made my teeth jitter. After having devoured Fifth Element in theaters, on VHS, DVD, and BluRay I was ready to see a spiritual successor.
To be fair, Luc Besson has written, produced, or directed with mixed results in the past. He’s had some clunkers for certain, but his best films are concrete classics like Leon and La Femme Nikita. So the hype machine should likely have been more tempered, especially given recent artistic theft.
And then… I saw it. I saw Valerian. Sitting in the theater I felt like I was about to be romanced and as the opening credits rolled I was. Gorgeous imagery, stunning creature design, iconic music, and thematic heft was served to me perfectly!
But those six or so minutes ended, and the romance shifted RAPIDLY. The film took my hand invitingly, warmly locked eyes with mine, and shit the bed. I’m talking explosively bad. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had clearly eaten a cabbage dinner with a lot of dairy.
How? How did this film go from amazing to chunky raw sewage so INSTANTLY? Here’s what went wrong:
Bad writing of characters
Bad Characters: Major Valerian, upon introduction, clearly does not respect the space of women and he is forceful in his physical contact with them. What’s more, we swiftly learn that the woman he is sexually harassing is an enlisted solider under his command. This never lets up throughout the entire film. He has no character arc and learns nothing by the time the credits roll. WOW.
Immediately after we learn that the target of his sexual harassment, Sergeant Laureline, is possibly a stalker and keeps profiles and data on all of the women her superior officer has banged and tossed aside. These profiles are available to display on the walls via the ship’s VI at a mere prompting from Laureline.
This unlikable insanity continues. Laureline needlessly threatens unarmed civilians in a government center with her drawn pistol for zero reason. She even discharges it! Maybe she learned it from Valerian because he does the same thing later in the film by freezing a guard when he could have merely commandeered the pistol via his rank and operational status. Oh, and he’s needlessly mean to kids in that he literally wastes time to be rude to a child instead of deal with a crisis in front of him early in the film.
These characters are just shitty people.
Bad Writing of Characters: Remember how this movie embraced me lovingly prior to shitting the bed? Well, if characters are the meat of the ass-spray then the writing is the corn. Perhaps Laureline isn’t a stalker, but the writer(s) wanted to visually display that Valerian is a slut hence all his conquests are projected at Laureline’s command. Maybe they felt Laureline was too soft, so they mistook catty and pettiness for confrontational.
Nearly every character beat in this film is so manufactured that nothing feels real. When viewing a film, or experiencing a narrative in general, the audience must be able to gather data on a character and predict their behavior based on patterns. The writer can subvert these patterns with surprises like in The Usual Suspects or The Crying Game, but if the writer has no idea of who their characters are then no pattern emerges. The audience is completely uninvested.
The main villain of the film is so obvious the moment you meet him that I laughed out loud in the theater. He reminded me of my son who thinks that hiding under a blanket in the middle of the floor is somehow stealthy. “Find me, Dad!” but instead it was “Find me, audience!” coming from a Clive Owen-shaped bundle in the center of the room. And when we get his exposition behind his motivations, we can easily see that he has a point. He provides validation for his odious actions, but the movie doesn’t want to explore these challenges at all… so it leaves him literally dangling like a defeated Warner Brothers badguy to be picked up by the authorities.
Misogyny: This movie couldn’t have held women in greater contempt if it were funded by the MRM and directed by Mike Pence. Holy shit, where to start…
Here are the female characters:
* Sergeant Laureline is a shrewish woman for the sole purpose of tricking us onto Valerian’s side in their romantic conflict. She is ferociously loyal to him and breaks laws and limbs to rescue her man. She is also conveniently captured while wearing an INDESTRUCTIBLE JUGGERNAUT SUIT by aliens armed with nothing but clubs and fishing rods. Because she’s a woman so she needs rescuing. Oh, and the movie finds a reason to get her into a white dress as an allusion to their possible marriage. Valerian did pop the question casually during a mission to avoid talking about it in depth with her, after all.
* Bubble is a burlesque shape-shifter held against her will that seduces both Valerian and the audience in a fantastic and charming display performed by Rihanna. Skip the movie and just Youtube this scene, because it is awesome. But what isn’t awesome is what she says after. Bubble is DESPERATE for approval from the males in her life and when the film is done with the plot point she provided it casually kills her off in the arms of Valerian as if she were FULFILLED by him approving of her performance.
* Alex is the ship’s VI voice.
* Princess Who-Gives-a-Shit dies in the beginning to initiate… plot, I guess?
* Queen Who-Gives-a-Shit’s mom. She’s there to be sad and let her husband handle things.
* Officer assisting General Okto-Bar. So she at least got to stand near an awesome actor.
Aaaaaaaand that’s it. Everyone except for Laureline in this film is either cannon fodder or furniture. Every single thing a woman does in Valerian is either in relation to a more important man or a consequence of what a more important man desires.
In conclusion: I know I posed this article as a chat, and that was my honest intent at the get-go, but I just find myself getting more angry at this film as I write about it. As an author it is SO clear to me where this went wrong. A single re-draft of the script could have fixed so, so much of this film. Make General Okto-Bar a woman, drop the mystical alien king and just let Queen Who-Gibes-a-Shit handle his lines, have Bubble actually contain some agency or future beyond a plot point, and perhaps build an actual God-damned character arc into Major Valerian. And to improve the film further, fire the twelve-year-old boy who wrote Laureline’s character and just rewrite her from scratch with some subtlety.
But in hindsight I can’t shake the feeling that this movie was only a visual exercise in ascetics while holding the writing at arms-length. Every plot point, event, and character motivation appears to exist only to present the director with specific set pieces adding up to a lot of sound and fury.
What a fucking waste. Not since Prometheus has a film sabotaged itself so needlessly and completely.