Second Sight: The Duality of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

2017 has been a year in which promising big budget productions have died quick and brutal deaths at the box office.  Aggregate film review sites combined with a “been there, done that” mindset have signaled potential doom for the term "cinematic universe" throughout the blockbuster season.  Tom Cruise's ill-fated The Mummy, Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Luc Besson's tragic science fiction epic, Valerian and the City of a Thousands Planets are the most recent (and expensive) casualties in the economic war for the average moviegoer’s heart.  

Besson's visionary film is a beautiful train wreck of wondrous visuals, heartfelt homages, and satire so off the mark, it has dragged the picture into the center of social media debate with respect to its approach to gender.  The various elements that converged to allow Besson's long gestating passion project to exist also contributed to its abysmal box office returns and utterly divisive response among fans and critics across America.  

Intergalactic agents Laureline and Valerian are embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens the sanctity of Alpha, a space station Switzerland where thousands of alien species congregate and share knowledge.  As the agents get deeper into the mystery, they are confronted by ghosts from the past that threaten to not only undo the universe's long kept peace, but their budding romance as well.  The simple, rehashed plot is cribbed straight from a direct to dvd shelf of science fiction orphans, and the first symptom of Valerian's incurable malaise.   Besson was inspired by James Cameron's Avatar which gave him the courage to attempt something so technically unrestrained.  Unfortunately, both films are pure visual marvels that lack a soul.  Besson's grasp of the source material is evident in the film's beautiful opening act: A Bowie montage of human/alien interactions that hint at a greater message of peace and tolerance, a message that may have resonated more with US audiences had Besson chosen to explore it. Instead, the following two plus hours is a conventional science fiction action story that eschews any sense of depth to carry the narrative across confusing pools of satire in order to reach the next potent visual exposition.  

The digital effects are some of the best uses of CGI in recent memory.  In particular, the first major sequence of the film, involving a trans-dimesnional tourist trap is filled with spectacle, containing unique alien and human cultures that pervade Besson's playful catalogue.  The effects serve the story, enhancing a wild foot chase that has to be seen to be believed.  The conclusion of such is where the initial problems begin, where one of the film's precious few female characters appears more concerned about her soiled attire than her dead comrades.  This is where the audience's reactions will diverge.   

One direction involves a fair assessment that the film treats its women....coldly at best.  Super model Cara Delevingne's Laureline is smart, competent, and lethal, bailing out her male counterpart throughout, however this is overshadowed by the way the world views her.  This is the second divergence.  Satire.  French native Besson has, for the most part, approached his subject matter with tongue firmly planted in cheek and both Delevingne and Dane DeHaan (Valerian) have commented on the nature of their characters’ relationship.  Conceptually the idea was that Laureline was the smarts behind the bumbling Valerian and both actors seem perfectly fine with the final product.  The issue however, is in how it translates in the cinema.  Their chemistry is unique, because the dialogue forces them overcome it, relying on physicality and nuance to make their love believable.  This doesn't always work, but when it does, it makes the humor more appreciable. 

Gettin weird in Valerian.

The fatal flaw however, is that the satire is just not there unless you are specifically looking for it and thus, many viewers may be turned off.  At one point Besson attempts to endearingly introduce a shape-shifting sex worker, but hastily sidesteps the emotional complications in favor of effects wizardry, echoing the unevenness that runs throughout.  Alexandre Desplat’s resilient score is the equalizer, deftly balancing Besson’s off kilter humor with a sense of grandeur that encapsulates Valerian’s lofty goals.    

Thierry Arbogast's cinematography captures the digital voodoo and human participants with vivid shots of alien locales and looming spaceships.  The action is adequate, but not inventive, and yet somehow manages to keep the viewer enthralled thanks to Arbogast's quicksilver control and this is the saving grace.  Valerian is a universe full of ideas and possibilities and it would have been easy to focus on the insanity of the scope, rather than Besson's central story of predictable intrigue, and it works by saturating the basic plot with unreal components of extraterrestrial customs and inter-dimensional destinies.  However, as the overlong runtime grinds towards its inevitable conclusion, the visceral jackhammer of the first act is slowly forgotten and the usual fun of a Besson film is weighed down by the repetitive flash.  Valerian is a movie that desperately wants to be something, and yet, can never settle upon what that thing is, let alone take enough time to have fun with itself.  

In theaters now, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is being hailed as the biggest independent box office bomb in history.  Currently, it has earned 54 million against its 177 plus million dollar budget.  There are many who feel the decision to release against Nolan's Dunkirk is to blame, but adding both pictures’ debut numbers together is nowhere close enough to topple a stone cold blockbuster’s debut.  The truth is most likely somewhere in between.  Divisive critical reactions, hit or miss humor, and basic storytelling all contribute to the underwhelming feeling that Valerian leaves in its wake.  Regardless, the visuals are indeed worth the price of admission.  In an era of reboots and sequels, there are artists out there trying different things with the medium.  While the bulk of these are indeed disasters, some of these efforts yield classic entries that not only change the game forever, but also become lauded cult gems in the years to follow.  Valerian is most likely somewhere in between.

- Kyle Jonathan

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