Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets movie review: story of a thousand clichés

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

There is barely an original thought in this wackadoodle sci-fi panto, just a lot of tiresome passé attitudes skidding among bug-eyed-monster set dressing.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big science fiction fan
I’m “biast” (con): mostly not a fan of Luc Besson
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Boy, Luc Besson sure has me pegged! When I, a woman, think about having adventures in the future in space, I always imagine that I am perfect and brilliant and that whatever journey I needed to take to achieve this superiority to all others around me is so unimportant that it’s not worth mentioning. I dunno, maybe women are born perfect. Maybe Besson just somehow knows that women are not flawed, complicated, messed-up human beings but paragons of light and honor who exist solely to serve as ultimate ideals for men to aspire to, and to be inspired by. Anyway, oh yes, in my head, I dream of being able to hang out with a fucked-up jerk who wants nothing else to but to get into my pants, and to one day deliver to him a speech about the power of love that will finally elevate him to such worthiness as I will at last deign to suck face with him. This is my fantasy. And Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the cinematic realization of it. Thank you, Luc Besson (Lucy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec), writer and director, for understanding women geeks so well.

“Deactivated? Is this where the subplot about my hopes and fears got tossed?”
“Deactivated? Is this where the subplot about my hopes and fears got tossed?”tweet

*deep, calming breath*

I am utilizing sarcasm only so that I do not fly off into a gut-busting, vein-bursting rage.

I am also laughing out loud, derisively, at the idea that Valerian is an “original” story (as seen in a piece at Vulture fretting that the flopping of this movie in the US means audiences just can’t handle anything science-fictional that isn’t Marvel or Star Wars). And I’m not talking about the fact that this is based on the visually influential French comic Valerian and Laureline. (Why she has been demoted from the title of this movie adaptation is a rant for another day.) I’m talking about the fact that there is barely a single original thought or moment in this way-too-long movie. Is reckless bad-boy-who-sleeps-around-and-can’t-commit secret-agent Valerian (a woefully miscast Dane DeHaan: A Cure for Wellness, Life) meant to be a fresh and clever invention? Is his partner, supercompetent Laureline (an only slightly less miscast Cara Delevingne: Suicide Squad, Paper Towns), who is always saving his ass from his own ineptness? (Why is this his story, and not hers, if she’s so awesome? This is a dynamic we see way too often.) Dude is constantly hitting on her, asking her to marry him, and will not take No for an answer, and eventually she does give in… she has to, because she is his inevitable sexual prize at the end of the movie. (See, guys? No does mean Yes, eventually! What a wonderful lesson for us all.) Is any of this anything our collective pop-cultural storytelling hasn’t been positively steeped in since forever?

It’s centuries in the future, and Besson is invoking sexual norms on a par with The Jetsons.

Spoiler: It is not.

You know, some real science-fictional thinking maybe wouldn’t be so heteronormative, so 1950s sexually conservative, might actually give us some human beings who were more expansive in their outlooks on love and sex. It’s centuries in the future here! Does Besson really want to invoke sexual norms on a par with The Jetsons?

(Ah, I would like to know how the hell this is supposed to be the 28th century, which all the marketing — including the film’s official site — says it is. The opening sequence jumps from the 21st century to the year 2150 — aka 22nd century — and then it leaps to “400 years later,” ie, 2550-ish, which is the film’s setting in time. That’s 26th century.)

“Pandora? Never heard of it.”
“Pandora? Never heard of it.”tweet

Also, this is a movie about how Valerian — with some moral prodding from Laureline — will be a human savior to noble-savage aliens, beautiful and peaceful and gentle and patrician who look pretty human except taller and more willowy, but still with pert breasts you can almost see under their filmy clothes. Pretty aliens who can help Valerian become a better man: this is what consumes most of the convoluted plot of this dumb movie. You know what would have been kinda cool? If the movie had been about those aliens instead of about the human asshole who mostly thinks with his penis and we’re supposed to imagine that makes him cool.

(As with Besson’s The Fifth Element, this is a movie in which entire worlds are saved from ultimate destruction because a man learned the meaning of love. The narcissism of this is breathtaking.tweet)

You know what would have been cool and clever and fresh and original and not something we’d already seen a half a gazillion times? If any of the aliens here were anything more than bug-eyed-monster set dressingtweet in a wackadoodle sci-fi panto, if some truly alien ideas and truly alien cultures had any impact whatsoever on anything that happens.

Cringeworthy banter is meant to indicate a palpable sexual tension between Valerian and Laureline (it fails).

There is one clever science-fictional thing I don’t recall ever seeing before here: a sequence involving a mission to steal a macguffin across dimensions. This really is authentically science-fictional. (The macguffin? It’s a magical alien aardvark that shit-replicates whatever you feed it. That’s not science fiction: that’s just wishful thinking. The little critter is cute, though.) But that consumes about 10 minutes in this two-hour-plus movie. Mostly, I see clichés. I see a lot of neon lighting up an alien marketplace — so original. I see muddled space chases in which it’s difficult to see anything that’s happening except when Valerian and Laureline’s ship slips through narrow spaces just like the Millennium Falcon does, by flipping sideways. I see that we can instantly guess who the villain is, from the moment that character steps onscreen. I see a city of a thousand planets, a space station that is a conglomerate of hundreds of alien races, and yet almost every significant character is human, and most of those are white and male. I see “dazzling” CGI standing in for character and story.tweet I see cringeworthy banter meant to indicate a palpable sexual tension between Valerian and Laureline (it fails). I see that men cannot imagine a future in which women are not sold sexually to men.tweet

“We’re actually quite enlightened beings with a rich culture, but sure, we’ll do an alien shuck-and-jive for you.”
“We’re actually quite enlightened beings with a rich culture, but sure, we’ll do an alien shuck-and-jive for you.”tweet

Oh, didn’t I mention? The only other substantive female character in Besson’s wet dream of a movietweet is literally a sex slave — one with a heart of gold, of course — whom Valerian can rescue, and who will then also serve his personal journey to make him a better person. Alien Bubble can shapeshift to suit a man’s fantasies — like, say, Valerian’s — and whaddaya know? Men’s ideas about “sexy” are still stuck on “naughty schoolgirl” and “French maid.” Seriously? Bonus points to Besson to casting singer Rihanna (Home, Annie) as Bubble, because then Valerian gets to be not only a human savior to a downtrodden alien but also a more tediously traditional white savior. Original? Not in the least.

This is no reflection on Rihanna, whom I think is terrific, but the entire sequence with Bubble could have been deleted from the film without impacting the story one whit, which would have had the additional benefit of bringing the running time down to something more reasonable. The fact that it remains tells us how friggin’ much Besson is into his alien-sex-slave-with-a-heart-of-gold rescue fantasy. Barf.

I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit on these fake geek dudestweet who don’t have a science-fictional idea in their heads that does not serve their boners, their sense of supremacy, or their assumed privilege. Someday, maybe, if they try hard enough, they might come up with a story that doesn’t put themselves squarely at the center of the universe, that actually takes advantage of the whole damn point of science fiction: that it allows you to imagine the world as something other than it is. But I doubt it.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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