This post contains spoilers. It also will come off as negative to the point of sounding harsh. Apologies.
I generally don’t like to post negative reviews. What’s the point? So let me say right off that I did not hateValerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But the movie does not really work. As a writer, I want to understand why.
Luc Besson’s science fiction
I’ve been a fan of Luc Besson’s movies since the 1980s, when I first saw his first feature.
This stark yet grimly compelling tale of desperate survival in a postapocalyptic setting makes Mad Max seem like a romp through a luxury resort by comparison. This is a world devastated by war, disease, economic collapse—exactly what or how, we’re not sure. This is a world with few women. A world where even speech has been lost. A world of men who rule with brutality or defy it to the extent they can. The fact that there is, with one delightful exception, no dialog (though this is a sound picture) only adds to our fascination as our hero, The Man as he is called in the synopsis (Pierre Jolivet), fights nameless nemeses in a cinematic storytelling that draws lessons from Eisenstein and Hitchcock. The cast is solid. (This is the first time I saw Jean Reno, and he’s quite terrifying in this movie.) Just on the surface, this is a daring directing debut.
What makes this movie work as intriguing science fiction is how it breaks down masculinity into three basic types: the monsters who exploit every opportunity to dominate and take from others, the intellectuals who cling to knowledge and the last vestiges of civilization (which includes treasuring women in a way), and the few decent men who cow to the monsters, try to escape them, or rarely stand up to face them.
This is by no means a feminist film. The movie opens with The Man trying to satisfy himself with a blow-up sex doll before it deflates on him—a scene that feels more pathetic than exploitative or misogynistic. Yet Besson’s debut feature does challenge conventional concepts of macho tough-guy masculinity that are celebrated in western culture—including all but the most recent Mad Max movie.
Many of Besson’s other films also question machismo. Nikita presents a woman broken by a man’s world, reshaped into a killer, who then rebels. The men pursuing her, unable to catch her, end up shaking their heads, unable to understand how such a woman, who defies and denies subjugating herself to their will, enamors them so. (This feels like a happy ending.)
On the surface it’s your standard action movie—hit man turns against his gang. Leon is a man who succeeds on macho terms in a macho world, but who is noble in his own way. In a moment of moral strength, he takes in a teen (or preteen) neighbor girl whose family has been wiped out by corrupt cops. Mathilda is young, her sexuality only just starting to bud, but for me the movie avoids pedophilic creepiness and becomes a kind of surrogate father-daughter tale. They need each other. They teach each other. And they each heal and become whole in a way. Again, the good guy stands up against the monsters who rule everything.
(You can’t help but end up loving Jean Reno in this film. And Natalie Portman dazzles.)
In perhaps Besson’s weirdest film, men’s violence stands out as the main threat to humanity’s very existence. (The physical threat is the great evil approaching from outer space, but the existential threat is shown to be men’s violent fear and suspicion of the unknown—which only strengthens this great evil.) The powerful performance of Milla Jovovich as Leeloo, the woman out of time, manages to push Bruce Willis from the center of what is otherwise a wild and uneven movie with some parts hard to take, other parts magical.
Even the low-budget Lucy manages to have moments of entertainment, indulging in a fantasy of a woman destroying what toxic men hold dear.
None of these movies could be called feminist. In fact, while they regard women as essential to civilization, they all center men’s views of women as the justification. Women are valued because men treasure them. Still, as entertainments these movies have their enjoyable qualities. And they do in various ways challenge toxic masculinity.
That takes us to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Given the terrible reception to the film when it came out, I did not have high expectations. And yet, knowing this was a longtime dream project of Besson’s, I held secret hopes it would at least come off as inspired. At the very least, I looked forward to some kind of heartfelt core, even if it was wrapped in a mess.
If you haven’t seen the film, I can report that the production values are fine, the cast is solid, and the story concept holds promise—in theory. But the script fails them. How?
The world building
The opening holds a certain poetry. Through a series of scenes of greetings between strangers (set to the stellar David Bowie), an international space station above Earth grows and expands from an American effort to am international collaboration to an interstellar nexus where a thousand intelligent species of various kinds share knowledge and thive together. It’s a hopeful and beautiful vision.
Yet I was struck by how the sequence always centers white men in virtually every engagement.
Right there, the future feels out of date.
When we return to the city after a couple of sequences, we learn that this utopia is run by some sort of human military dictatorship. Apparently human white patriarchy rules all species. (And all species we get to know are defined by the gender binary, with the males dominant.) We learn nothing about these characters, even though they are driving much of the plot. Even the fabulous Clive Owen comes off as one-note and…dull.
When we meet our main characters—two young humans who are part of some governmental military force—they are bickering, about what I can’t remember. This scene feels dated. Valerian is a man right out of 1975—a cliche of masculinity groping, grabbing, and pestering women, truly believing that all he needs to do is persist in his libidinous approaches until they succumb.
His counterpart (and military subordinate) Laureline resists his “charms” in the way 1940s film heroines resist, with firmness and snark but never taking true offense. She seems to like him (fair enough), but we don’t know why. He exhibits no particular empathy or interest in her beyond the fact that she’s hot and currently unobtainable. He demonstrates no real redeeming qualities. (Smugness and good shooting skills are not enough for me.)
And yet, as presented, the question of their relationship seems to be simply when she will finally surrender to his advances. And we’re supposed to think this is romantic, apparently.
Next we meet a civilization of humanoids on a paradise beach planet. Perhaps because of the animation style, this sequence feels reminiscent of Avatar. Yet I found myself interest in these people and was curious as to what was going on. Then tragedy strikes. Dozens of spaceships burst down from the sky and crash into the planet, bringing on an apocalyptic disaster. Oh well.
Then at a completely different planet, Valerian and Laureline fly in (with some jokes about a woman’s driving—really) to pull off some kind of caper to retrieve a “mule converter” (which we later learn is actually a Mül converter, a magical creature from Mül, the paradise beach planet we saw destroyed). We meet a band of eccentric mercenaries, and they’re all there to pull off some caper—obtain this converter, which is really important for some reason. We eventually see a little critter from the destroyed beach planet and come to realize that it is this coveted converter the military is after. There’s some clever science fiction storytelling play in this action sequence as characters cross two overlapping dimensions of reality. But I found myself wondering what the heck was going on with the characters. Or why.
Then we follow our two elite soldiers of some kind of interstellar governmental organization to the titular city—which apparently they know nothing about, even though it’s the center of interstellar civilization, or at least the human experience of it. The scene becomes an info dump as the computer reads off facts about The City of a Thousand Planets.
I think of the missed opportunities here, what we could have learned from just a bit of interplay between the characters: reacting to the news; revealing their attitudes about the place; past experiences here; how they think it contrasts with other places; how they feel about each other’s views; what kind of reception they expect to receive; will they know anybody there; does either of them have any misgivings. We get none of that.
And that dumps us into the main plot about an uninhabitable core that threatens this city we know nothing about, following characters whose underlying motivations are not even hinted at, set in a universe we don’t understand. Naturally the story plods along. People and machines react mechanically to events.
Everything Valerian does is to step in front and play the hero. Everything Laureline does is focused on saving Valerian so he can continue to do all the saving. During their escapades, a kindgom of unsophisticated, nontechnological (despite living in the middle of space), barbarous animal-like aliens capture Laureline to eat her. Valerian kills them all as a matter of course in a sequence that made me cringe from its colonialist (to put it kindly) overtones. There’s some shoot-em-up action against bad-guy robots. Valerian the wonder boy shoots each one in the head with his super gun. No problem.
In the culmination of the film, Valerian suddenly expresses a truth about himself—that he is bound by duty, which is not something we have seen, given how flippant he is about breaking rules and disobeying orders. But this device forces Laureline to defy him and ultimately save the day. I’m thinking that maybe she should have been the main character.
But then Laureline goes and marries Valerian. And they all lived happily blah blah blah…
What did we just watch?
What about Star Wars?
In a Facebook discussion, Sally Weiner Grotta asked why Valerian fails while Star Wars succeeds. My own answer to that would require a book. Very briefly, I would say Star Wars works as a textbook hero’s journey built upon some solid characterization. (It doesn’t hurt that the film was edited down by Marcia Lucas into a tight story. George’s own re-cuts with added scenes seem only to detract from the film’s impact.)
Even today, 41 years later, Star Wars IV feels futuristic in vision and contemporary in relevance. The first characters we meet are droids, and we actually kind of care about them. Darth Vader is weird and mysterious and scary. Luke’s family feels like a 1930s traditional family, but his aunt and uncle actively resist any involvement in politics or adventure or anything that’s not farming, and Luke rebels against that with a keenly felt restlessness that we can sense goes down to his core. And he has dreams—naive, innocent dreams, but dreams nonetheless. We know, we can feel that Luke needs to get away and somehow become himself.
As the story unfolds and the other characters are brought on stage, the comically macho Han Solo (whose arrogance comes off as silly and childish, rendering him more charming and appealing) is played against the earnest Luke and the monk-like wisdom of Obi-wan. Add in the surprisingly dignified Chewy and the second act becomes something of an exploration of what it is to be a man.
The third act succeeds not because they blow up the Death Star, though they do that and the audience cheers. The real triumph is that Luke finally finds himself. If Luke had not turned off his targeting computer and committed himself to The Force, thereby adding an emotional climax on the personal level to the space battle’s culmination, I don’t think the movie would not have become the sensation it was and is. A story cannot succeed without resolving (happily or unhappily) the wants and needs of its main character(s). Oh, Star Wars would have enjoyed decent box office simply for its rousing fun. But it would have had a hole in its center that no amount of special effects could fill.
To top things off, and adding to the longevity of the story, the romantic tensions are unrequited. In the end, Leia is in charge, out of reach of her suitors. And it was her calling out Han on his bullshit that got him to turn back and join the fight at a critical moment. All the characters act with agency, and they all follow their own moral compasses.
While the movie does not otherwise present women with power or agency, the world it creates does not preculde it, and we see the expansion of women’s participation in the recent sequels. The nonexplicit whiteness of the cast also gives way to more true diversity in the recent films, and it does not feel like a stretch at all.
In the end
Valerian frustrates me because the production values are decent enough and the cast is not bad, but they have nothing human to do. There’s no life in the story.
I’m rambling and need coffee. Tell me what you think.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets