Dan at the Movies: Valerian and the Etc. Etc.

I wasn’t going to do this. Review Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets. You can tell because it’s been out for a while now and I’m just getting around to it.

But it turns out that there are a couple of things about it I want to talk about. So let’s do this.

First, the bad news.

Narrative Weaknesses

The titular “City of 1000 Planets” is space station Alpha, which once was an Earth space station, but in the film’s intro gradually grows into a hub of interplanetary diplomacy and commerce. After wrapping a mission, interplanetary agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge) return to the station to find themselves caught in an intrigue between their military bosses and a mysterious alien race.

That’s about all I can say about the plot… not because not much happens, but because if I try to go into more detail it’ll get out of hand fast and I’ll describe way too much. But don’t worry. You’ll figure it all out. It is… not hard. If you can’t tell exactly where the story is going within half an hour… how fun your simple life must be. I’d love to be surprised that easily some days.

Anyway.

The romantic subplot between Valerian and Laureline, because of course there is one, because why wouldn’t there be one other than not wanting to be trite… it’s forced and hackneyed. Very hackneyed. Someone who is 19 wrote the dialogue for that plotline. Luc Besson was late to set, so he gave an intern a Writing Romance For Dummies book and had them write Valerian’s dialogue in the car. I don’t think there was one scene involving Valerian trying to convince Laureline to marry him (they are not dating, by the way) that didn’t make me roll my eyes at the bland, passionless approach, and DeHaan’s uninspired take.

(Okay, sure, Delevinge didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but were we expecting much? Frankly her performance fit Laureline’s general sense of exasperation with her partner pretty well, so I’d give her more of a pass than DeHaan.)

With that out of the way…

Visual Feast

The visuals on this film are incredible.

It was honestly hard to be too upset with the wooden romantic arc when every ten minutes there was some new amazing sight, some new high-concept facet of this world splashing across the screen. I’m not one to throw around the phrase “Every frame a painting,” but hot damn this film is pretty to look at. And conceptually fascinating. I could spend entire seasons of a TV show devouring the ideas being thrown around.

Big Market, a popular tourist market that exists in a different dimension, only accessible through special goggles, gloves, and hand-held portal devices, leading to a chase scene that simultaneously takes place in a back alley market and an empty desert.

Telepathic jellyfish that form symbiotic relationships with massive sea creatures that, for some reason, live in Alpha.

A truly dizzying red light district, featuring Rihanna as a shapeshifting exotic dancer/prostitute and a delightfully over-the-top Ethan Hawke as her… manager, I guess we could say? No. Pimp. Call it what it is.

(While Rihanna and Delevinge display all the emotional acting depth you’d expect from a singer and a model, and DeHaan sometimes seems lost in his role, Hawke and Clive Owen just cut loose. And that’s super fun.)

Honestly words aren’t enough. If you’ve seen the trailer, know that you’ve barely scratched the surface.

How do they fit all of this stuff into one movie? That’s the thing I most wanted to cover.

Comic Book Storytelling

A little over halfway through I noticed something odd about the way the story was going. The main plot, as I said, isn’t super complex… but we hadn’t really touched on it in about half an hour. Valerian had gone missing chasing one of the aliens, then once Laureline found him, she got grabbed by a different group of aliens who banned outsiders.

On a space station built around mingling. I mean, sure, your embassy is sovereign ground, but a whole– nope, it’s fine, don’t get distracted.

So then Valerian has to pull off a complicated extraction, after which we finally begin to get back to the main story. I didn’t mind any of this, it was all engaging, I just happened to notice how long it had been since we’d addressed the main story and briefly thought it weird, until I realised what was happening.

This movie is based on the French comic Valérian and Laureline. And that’s why this story keeps shifting from odd locale to odd locale, sub-plot to sub-plot. It isn’t just taking a comic story and making it into a three-act action movie like your average Marvel or DC movie, it’s doing comic-style storytelling on the big screen.

Which is to say, it’s episodic. Each time the story takes a left turn or finds a new locale, that’s a new issue. And I can’t name a comic book movie off the top of my head that’s experimented with that.

Does it work? It worked for me, because it allowed the movie to explore so much more of this fascinating and gorgeously realised world, and since the visuals and world-building are what the Besson was doing best here, more was definitely better. But if you found the story a little scattered I couldn’t particularly blame you.

Wrap-up

I do not officially endorse the consumption of mind-altering herbal substances (hi Mom), but this seems like an ideal movie to be super high for.

It’s good but flawed, gorgeous but slightly hollow. It makes me fascinated by its world(s) but not quite its main characters. I’d watch it again, but not in a hurry. Of the movies I’ve seen this summer movie season (May-present) so far, it’s probably eighth, under either Spider-Man: Homecoming or Dunkirk. I have not made up my mind as to my feelings on Dunkirk.

4.5/5 for visuals, 3.5/5 for story, buoyed mostly by its different approach and high-concept space opera fun rather than its leads. Worth seeing, worth seeing on the big screen, but probably cheap theatres? Unless you have a really nice TV or something.

Well if this isn’t the most half-assed endorsement you’ve ever read. But that’s Valerian.

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