Two themes emerged upon the release and failure of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The Guardian, sticking to the tradition of using the legitimacy of its platform to pass off the inane as insight, waved neutrally at both:
On paper, [Valerian] should have been huge: an unfamiliar story in a time when audiences grumble over Hollywood’s lack of creativity, a ravishing sci-fi spectacle with enough CGI to make Avatar look like a student film, a cast featuring a supermodel and a pop star bringing their huge followings to the table … Perhaps in practice, it was all too outré to sell to the American people, an incoherent mishmash when compressed into ad form. Maybe critics wield more power than conventionally assumed, as the majority of reviews warned that the complete bafflement of the ad campaign carried over to the film itself.
Like most frames of a debate, this one was a lie.
What if Valerian was neither a welcomely original contrast to franchises and remakes, whose benighted audiences were not ready for this jelly; nor, by the same token, a movie that was baffling, and so no wonder audiences stayed away?
The fact that some rote films succeed doesn’t mean that another film’s failure is down to it being too outré. The Matrix was a “new property” that also arrived during a time of middling Star Wars and Batman films; it had to introduce audiences—even American ones—to a new world (albeit one made up, like everything, of familiar parts). The difference in success between The Matrix and “unfamiliar” films like the Wachowskis’ own Jupiter Ascending, or adaptations of foreign properties like Ghost in the Shell, might also be to do with whether the films are any good. Quality has never guaranteed success, but it does seem odd that while sifting through the wreckage of a flop, so little attention is given to the engine, with its cardboard drive-belt and pistons made of Lego, and so much to taking retrospective readings of the industry weather.
To make a good film of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets the filmmakers needed to figure out how they were going to portray a new story world to a largely unfamiliar audience. And they wanted to portray a main feature of this world as being its variety. In the foreground would be a couple of space feds, Laureline (Cara Delevingne) and Valerian (the trailer-voiced Dane DeHaan), bonding us to this unfamiliar world with their chemistry.
The real key, however, to the filmmakers' goals, and to audience interest, was in the film’s name.
In the charming Prologue (1) of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, we montage through the space race and beyond, with humans in Earth orbit meeting one new alien species after another. The aliens, and the humans via these successive first contacts, advance in design, technology, and grandeur. Over the centuries, an orbiting city “Alpha” grows like a coral reef of civilisations encrusted around the original hulk of the ISS.
Via its cool scalar inversion, a city that comprises a thousand planets rather than the other way round is invitingly dense. Alpha might not be novel—Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5 already collected multiple species and cultures in their floating Casablancas—nor does it need to be. As with Greg Bear’s Eon, in which an asteroid impossibly contains within it just three (give or take) vast cities, Valerian’s potential lay in that classic trope of the fantastic: a world in a pocket, the many in one. But the filmmakers had other ambitions.
From the outset, the film takes us globes-trotting; we visit four locations—Earth orbit, a planet called Mül, the ship of Valerian and Laureline, and the planet Kyrian and its market—before we get to the location promised in the title. These locations let the filmmakers show off a background excess in creature effects and alien design, minor characters, colour schemes, a new-Whovian tic for stuff! stuff! stuff!
Some stuff is successful: in a second Prologue, we see the pastel homeworld of the Pearls, a species with an advanced CGI imitation of gesture and texture, whose pet lizards defecate iridescent bath salts that act as a thermodynamic-disobeying energy source. The faces of these Pearl Fishers darken literally and prettily when they get angry or sad, like when their paradise is trashed by tornadoes of wreckage of vessels from an unknown war. Similarly well-rendered and weird are the three duck-billed monkey bats that Laureline has to deal with, finishing each other’s capitalist wisecracks through their tripartite minds.
The film's gamble is to offer this stuff! stuff! stuff! as its selling point. But how it presents it will decide whether or not it sells.
The first image of the film is original space race footage in a television frame, which then curtain-parts into widescreen—Valerian has cinematic ambitions; it is aware of its ways of presenting and ways of seeing. At one point Laureline puts a jellyfish on her head to see through space and time, and we enter the last act’s revelation space through a glowing screen. In the film’s first action sequence, Valerian and Laureline land on Kyrian to team up with some commandos to recover a “Mül convertor,” the last of the lizards that make multiple copies of any thing that they eat (the many in one theme); but the market where the team is to find the lizard exists at a point of remove from apparent reality. The 3-D film incorporates how it’s being seen: the team have to put on goggles to see the other dimension, just as the audience does with their magic £1 glasses.
Valerian has cinematic ambitions in the sense too of cinema absorbing the storytelling styles of newer media, particularly video games. In the same market sequence, a commando takes over an enemy guard in order to use him as his artillery-toting avatar, and Valerian uses a sort of Portal gun, with his arm getting stuck in one dimension and his body in another before this predicament reverses.
This thoughtfulness about its medium ought to bode well for the film. And historically, Luc Besson has proved he knows how to construct a good cinematic sequence. Recall the fun at Spaceport Departures in The Fifth Element, when successive characters pretended to be the same character in order to try board a ship, with an increasingly less peppy check-in clerk amping up the security each time, thus fleshing out the authoritarian 2000 AD-esque feel of the world via storytelling. Later in that film Besson found a fresh way to do a familiar scene by making the climax of the cruise ship section a race against time to defuse a bomb but done as a back-and-forth farce.
The big money sequence in his new science fiction film is when Valerian has to take a shortcut during a chase by running through walls of the sections of Alpha, even bursting out of the seabed of one underwater section and donning an automatic dive-suit. And flooding the section behind him? How do all the sections fit together? For somewhere so vast and various, we never get an idea of Alpha’s proportion and layout, what its culture is and cultures are. Instead the film briefly introduces us to Alpha through the device of a computer voice giving a summary, intercut with matching images, of a city that the characters already refer to as “home sweet home.” Again the filmmakers aren’t using what they have available in the story; the presence of a new species on board, the lizard which might have triggered the Alpha computer to give its guidebook spiel in some prissily un-overrideable way. Or, as with the lazy introduction of Themyscira in Wonder Woman, the film misses the opportunity of getting through and away with its world-building by contrasting a jaded native with a dumbfounded newbie: by adding a third dimension of irony, the other two are justified.
Although incidents in each location nudge the plot along, the locations themselves are interchangeable. Without any foreground point or background depth (only two of the city’s 999 non-human civilisations have spoken parts; one other just grunts foreignly), Alpha has a theme-park feel, while the film’s much-praised visuals themselves are like those of a digital concept art magazine or a pulp sci-fi nostalgia Twitter account.
In Nausea, Roquentin is sickened by the terrible excess, not of the manmade but of nature. Nature has long since stopped having any meaning (there are no more omens or portents), it just is. In nature:
the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, in disorder … We were a heap of existents inconvenienced, embarrassed by ourselves, we hadn’t the slighted reason for being there, any of us, each existent embarrassed, vaguely ill at ease, felt superfluous in relation to the others.
The site of meaning might now be in the artificial, but it’s not guaranteed there either. Valerian’s “diversity of things” is surface deep, it has little reason to be other than to be, so it is not baffling; it is superfluous. Neither is Valerian too far out. With its climax being a revelation through flashback followed by a decision whose drama is “accentuated” by the camera going round and round the main characters as they argue, like a fretful child, the film shows it is all too mundane.
The filmmaker who thought about the spaceport and cruise ship sequences in The Fifth Element relies instead now on Zoidberg storytelling (a steampunk French submarine captain, why not!). Had Valerian been told as a picaresque throughout—an adventure through a city if not across the universe (a space movie without space travel, why not?)—then the shallow variety of settings and characters would have been a feature and not a bug. Told this way, the sequence where Valerian runs through the walls of locations could have been the first time we saw them—wow, what’s that, where’s that?—an in-story reason for so much stuff.
But to work as the picaresque it occasionally aspires to be, the film’s central relationship would have to have carried the story, the same way that we follow Don Quixote and Sancho Panza through episode after episode because of their amusing bickering relationship. One explicit inspiration for Valerian’s central relationship is after all Star Wars, Valerian and Laureline even bickering in a garbage chute like Han and Leia.
The film already makes Valerian and Laureline’s relationship central, giving the former a goal of persuading the latter that he truly loves her and isn’t just trying to add her to his “playlist,” as the dialogue describes it in an all-too-rare moment of creative future-speak. With so much time to be spent on these characters, it was crucial to establish them and their relationship well.
So it’s not a good sign when the film begins by having the two list their adjectives at each other (Valerian: caddish, romantic. Laureline: stuffy, smart). The lesson to learn from Star Wars is that characters should act out and not just spell out their characteristics. But even at the climax Valerian's characters are still telling each other who they are, or more strangely, Laureline telling Valerian, and us, that he is something that his actions have shown that he’s not. When he wants to hand in the story McGuffin to the authorities, she orders him to stop being such a by-the-book company man; but surely he stopped a few scenes back when he was chasing the kidnappers of his commander (Clive Owen) into a forbidden zone and firing on their ship with him still aboard? And the qualities that these characters do in fact show are not especially appealing anyway, whether heroic or anti-heroic. The market sequence ends with them being chased by a monster that attacks the commandos’ ship. When the monster tears through its hull, our heroes escape through the gaps and board their own ship, abandoning their comrades …
Better portrayals of better characters could only have helped so much, since the supposedly charming bickering dynamic falls down on the point that Valerian is already in love with Laureline. They are not sceptical strangers drawn together through action (a love/hate romance is only stale if you do nothing fresh with it). Their dynamic is the much more dubious one of the workplace flirt wearing down the patience of his condescending eyebrow-raising colleague.
How do things stand with Luc Besson and women these days? Alongside all the parts Valerian has for fashion models is one for Rihanna. In the film’s musical answer to The Fifth Element, she fluctuates her wave-form according to the male gaze, passing (you hope ironically) through a series of very heavy types: the nurse, the French maid, the African Queen (?), the school girl (?!) plus Catwoman. Deep down however she is a blob, an illegal immigrant who sacrifices herself for her government friends, dying on a shudder of male approval at which point her protean jelly desiccates to white dust. Her character's only other discernible purpose is for her to morph at one point into Valerian for Laureline in order to save her, and at another point morph into Laureline for Valerian seductively. But we know from their first scene on that he’s in love with her, making Rihanna’s Mystique-style knowing look redundant.
More warningly, Valerian is in love with Laureline because she’s the “perfect woman” he’s been looking for. The last perfect woman in Besson’s work was The Fifth Element’s Leeloo (or maybe it was Lucy?), unattached, unbackstoried, unclothed, who famously when reading an encyclopaedia flicked past G-is-for-Genocide, M-is-for-Murder, S-is-for-Slavery with the casualness of someone with a magazine in a waiting room, until she made that fateful discovery at W.
Leeloo ought to have been the last from that era of films when it was radical enough just to centre on a female action hero. (In fact, rewatching The Fifth Element, you appreciate how the “perfect woman” is as misogynist an idea as God-incarnate was misanthropic.) Then what else, what more than just perfect is Laureline? Besson has some idea: he introduces us to her posteriorly à la Michael Bay.
Laureline’s backstory in the comics is more interesting (she has one): a French peasant girl who insists Valerian take her with him, away from medieval poverty to the future, where she flourishes. But in the film, with her huffily torn summer frock or her enhanced breastplate or her last act white dress and trite kickassery, Laureline can only remind you of that old meme: Strong? yes! Female! yes! Strong female character? no! All this is not meant as a routine and automatic gauging of a film’s sexism; the story as it’s being told depends on the central relationship, and that relationship cannot work when it’s such a throwback.
In the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast, to demonstrate that though this is a fairy-tale, it’s not completely full of gendered throwbacks, Belle pointlessly invents the washing machine and later attempts to escape the Beast but is interrupted before she gets a foot out the window. She then relents to the pre-modern logics of the genre, escaping her class into the aristocracy (a happenstance so unlikely it must be magical). Similarly, the submarine captain in Valerian telling us that a group of alien whale females are bigger and more dangerous than the males isn’t actually some progressive nod to sexual dimorphism; neither is it empowering to see Laureline pointlessly punch an already vanquished bad guy Clive Owen while Valerian gets to do the film’s final shoot ‘em up. (She doesn’t execute him at least; the Pearls leave him for the authorities in a cocoon of tree roots, why not!). Instead it’s just more of that same great modern danger, the sheep in wolf’s clothing.
When you learn the source comic is meant to be left-wing, this handling of character and location is all the more disappointing. The film (funded by BNP Paribas no less!) is more like The Dark Knight Rises, in that it chucks together a potpourri of politics to see who might like which smell. The future appears to be communist, or at least Asia-won, with Chairman Rutger Hauer informing the people of the decisions of the Central Committee, and Clive Owen et al being decked out in military uniforms of a decidedly M. Bison cut. And to begin with, in the first prologue, the story sweetly seems to be about interstellar comradeship. Yet when we fast-forward 400 years this theme drops out, right till the end, when Clive Owen tells us humanity will get booted out of the peace club were his crimes discovered. If the second prologue showing these crimes was meant to ironically undercut the sweetness of the first, the culprit should never have been a mystery.
Still, this film with a hollow middle is taken as a “critique” of colonialism, militarism, ethnic cleansing, critique being the word critics use when they mean “idly reference.” The characters bandy about other words like “civil rights,” “international law,” “security council,” even that potent figure “six million,” a little too casually. Clive Owen all but cries “Exterminate the Brutes” in the film’s showdown with the Pearls. These Na’vi-like tribe-people are from a planet of great energy resources (which is essentially just lizard shit, natch). They are peaceable, beautiful, ageless and androgynous, and cultureless too, living in a beach holiday frolic of Now. (But why does utopia have an Emperor?) Following the destruction of said utopia, the Pearls become (as described by Aishwarya Subramanian) the perfect victims of colonialism: terrorists who don’t kill, exiles who magic up a new homeland, and a race that forgives and reconciles in such a perfect way that Laureline brandishes them as an example to us humans.
Yet for all this lefty set-dressing the film sure likes to dish out police violence; Laureline as one of the space police has a real line in assaulting colleagues and suspects. Across space, time and gender, A C indeed A B. Such actions jar with her lauding of forgiveness at the end of the film, which depends on no change in herself. Turns out the universe of Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets is the same old one of authoritarian humans, primitivist foreigners, and hyper-capitalists (one species “to the east” is a “large colony” that “controls information technology, finance and banking” …). A city of a thousand stereotypes.
The film might have succeeded at bringing us into the vast universe of the Valerian and Laureline comics had it been built on the idea it'd first presented, the spirit of interstellar comradeship betrayed. A manifestation of that idea, both in a positive and negative light, the multicultural cosmopolis with a corruption in its heart, was already there in the film. Had this city been the point, then all themes could have intersected: Valerian’s single-minded pursuit of a perfect woman would have matured to a love for someone who contains multitudes; the film would have demonstrated space’s variety through a little old-fashioned Unity of Space, with movement through the city being at once movement through the story and the uncovering of its world; and most of all the variety of the film’s look and story would have matched, to affirm, in what sadly now seems like a radical way, the value of the city.
“Cosmopolitans,” writes Zygmunt Bauman on Ulrich Beck, “are to this day regarded in many countries as something between vagabonds, enemies and insects … What we are lacking is ‘cosmopolitan awareness’ to match our cosmopolitan condition.” How refreshing it could have been for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to supply that awareness, to subvert the reactionary tale of the pure pastoral versus the corrupt urban, showing that a city is not merely (or not even) an image-deep variety of dangers, vices, and exotic thrills. But that a city, built on comradeship, welcome, cooperation, can rediscover those qualities, via the actions of our heroes, and so save itself. Valerian starts with a trusting handshake with a foreigner and ends with a couple hooking up to a pop song. It should’ve been the other way round.