Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (cinema)

hero_valerian-2017

Oooh boy. I really watched the last three movies in the wrong order. I had reservations about all three, but thought this would be the easiest to enjoy. It was hands down the worst though (and Atomic Blonde was the best by a few million million miles). I’m not going to comment on the source material; I know Luc Besson’s been wanting to get this adapted for years. But as is often the case with these things: the director’s idea of what’ll look cool based on decades of mulling it over isn’t always something that translates into a good movie (bitter about the Star Wars prequels still, moi?). Style over substance is the order of the day.

And it does look cool, to be fair. That’s a thing it does with aplomb. It’s as beautiful and shiny as space should be, the design of all the alien species and the spaceships are really neat, and the CGI is obviously fantastic (if at times a little more than is necessary). An important alien species is the Pearls, whose skin is iridescent, and the design and appearance of them is really impressive (though it has shades of Avatar, which I’ve not seen largely because of CGI creepiness). Bits made me think of Star Wars in a good way: the opening pan and accompanying soundtrack, the garbage chute… The three information-selling aliens were adorable and had more character than everyone else in the movie. And I actually cackled when I realised Ethan Hawke was in it, doing more  acting than the rest of the cast combined. Also the pasty General and his officers were good eggs — he could actually pronounce an umlaut, so we were clear it was a planet called Mül not ‘Mule’. And the Converter was cute. And the Pearls were great. The only piece of design that really bugged me was that Clive Owen seemed to be taking fashion tips from this guy:

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Hark, a Vagrant 266

But I’m struggling to enthuse here. It was slow, it was obvious, and Valerian was utterly unlikeable. A Nu!Kirk fratboy who doesn’t understand the difference between commitment to a relationship and commitment to a job, who claims to do things ‘by the book’ when… uh, evidence points to ‘no’, and who ultimately agrees to do the right thing because he’d still quite like to get his end in </nini legs-in-the-air voice>. Laureline was fun enough, but my god did it all need updating for the 21st century. “Gentlemen and lady.” Really? Laureline saves Valerian’s ass, then gets distracted by the “pretty butterfly!” Eeeesh, Bubble’s ‘arc’ was grim, too. Valerian nervously bats aside the attentions of beautiful women in Paradise Alley; he makes a snide comment to the trans* woman and recoils in horror from the fat woman. The opening scenes, which should be a lovely montage of ambitious space exploration and working together, are given a sour taste as the white people welcome first the Chinese, then all the other ‘colours’ of planet Earth, one at a time, because evidently this kind of co-operation can only happen in space. It wouldn’t have been hard to write all of this very differently, and even if I’m generous and attribute it to the source material it doesn’t affect the plot one bit. I mean, in terms of Bubble’s pep-talk about Valerian’s relationship with Laureline, Spider-man: Homecoming did the same thing better, and with more genuine emotion between a teenager and a super-suit in 30 seconds than this movie manages in its entirety.

Look, I liked John Carter. I really liked Jupiter Ascending. And what was for years Luc Besson’s consolation prize, The Fifth Element, is probably in my top 20 movies I’ll watch anytime, anywhere. But these movies actually had likeable characters, and the world-building that weighed them down felt worthwhile — and it either made sense or didn’t need to make sense. Admittedly, John Carter struggled to update its princess to let her be what a modern audience might expect, and Valerian has the same problem ten times worse. They both suffer from Heinlein-itis: women can be really strong and intelligent and competent, but men are always better at these things, they just need women to provide the emotional smarts and empathy. And essentialism of this kind just sucks wherever it appears. I don’t care what the source material did. You’re making a sci-fi movie in 2017. Do better.

The darker aspects of the world were all thoroughly glossed over, apart from the villain’s crimes — but their presence meant that the world’s less appealing aspects (slavery, prostitution, etc) couldn’t just be ignored. Oh, but if you don’t guess who the villain is and what he’s done within five minutes of him being onscreen then it’s because you’ve already nodded off. And, assuming that’s intentional, that means there’s no need for everyone’s shocked faces at the end as they realise what our baddie did. Again, there might have been an interesting real world political point to make here, but all I find I’m left with is someone ranting about ‘economy!!’ and ‘soldiers!!!’

Scratch the surface of any of the plot and it makes no sense. The script is lacking, to woeful, to absent. The acting is wooden and superficial. It does look nice. But that is nowhere near enough to save it. Give me Jupiter Ascending any day.

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