An Unhappy Response to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Movie Review

Spoilers for this movie ahead. Go ahead and continue reading even if you haven’t seen it, because this movie is pretty unremarkable. Trust me. I guessed the plot twist within the first ten minutes.

Goodness gracious, this movie was a train wreck. A beautifully colored, visually stunning, attractively casted, slightly enjoyable train wreck.

I wanted to like Valerian. I really did, and it’s not only because I paid thirteen dollars for a movie ticket.  I enjoy the sci-fi genre, I enjoy beautiful films, I enjoy vast worldbuilding, I enjoy intricate plots, and I love Han and Leia-esque romances.

But sadly, I’d find that comparing our protagonists, Valerian and Laureline, to Han Solo and Leia Organa wasn’t going to be the first Star Wars comparison I’d make in the evening.

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Leia & Luke at the same table as Valerian & Laureline in the latter’s comic book art style

I must give credit where credit is due: it is ballsy and admittedly hard to make a science fiction piece today due to the sheer amount of basework that Star Wars paved in that genre, and yet Valerian succeeded in some ways in being original. I loved the concept of the otherdimensional marketplace, of the Pearl species as a whole & their fauna & culture, and of course, of the space cops that were Valerian and Laureline.

However, it is exceedingly difficult as a Star Wars fan to try to not notice the similarities between the movies. Valerian and Laureline’s ship looked exactly like an enlarged Millenium Falcon to me. The arc in which Laureline is captured by orc-looking creatures was far too reminiscent of Return of the Jedi’s slave Leia. Although I tried really hard not to think of this, Alpha, the city of a thousand planets itself, was Coruscant in my mind. There was also a group of officials in Valerian that met on behalf on their species from Alpha, and I was genuinely surprised that it wasn’t as vast and diverse as the Galactic Senate from Star Wars.

Also, the planet Mül completely blowing up, wiping out an entire people group as a strategic move of a corrupt government/military? Remember Alderaan, anyone? Bail Organa? No?

If I’m honest, this criticism is more my fault than the movie’s. Of course, the universes of Star Wars and Valerian should be able to exist together in their own rights as separate narratives. I could see a genuine effort to break away from Star Wars, too.  The way that they engaged their hyperdrives was much different, their ships breaking off faster and more violently and leaving behind streaks of color and light. The technology, costumes, or weaponry was also pretty innovative as far as science fiction goes. Also, “exo-space” was never a term I’ve heard used before.

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A (presumably unnamed?) trio of aliens from Valerian

But none of these pros were enough to really break away from how Star Wars-y the whole affair felt, so I believe it counts as a sin.

(If you’ve never seen Star Wars but you’ve seen Valerian, please, let me know what you thought of the grand scheme of its universe. I really am curious as to what you think of its balance of creativity and weirdness. Also … what are you doing? Please watch Star Wars.)

And another problem I had in regards to the movie’s relationship with science fiction is how very … out of genre it felt sometimes. Everything about it felt very human, a problem I’ll willingly admit Star Wars suffers from too. When Valerian enters Paradise Alley, almost all of the women he meets there are human, even women impersonating Marie Antoinette or Jessica Rabbit (which was seriously startling, like — Jessica Rabbit?! Why!?). And this is honestly a small note, but like … aren’t there females from other species, like Rihanna’s character Bubble, spread across the galaxy with the same occupations as their human counterparts? Just where are the aliens?

The movie boasts “a city of a thousand planets”, and yet the various cultures and people groups of the aliens in the city are kept at an arms length from the audience. I really wish they’d delved more into that stuff. It’s one thing that makes Star Wars so interesting, we get to experience all sorts of planetary history. Valerian came so close by introducing us to the plot with Mül and the Pearls, but it’s still no dice.

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The Pearls

The movie industry can come talk to me when they offer me a science fiction franchise similar to this one or Star Wars that has a complete alien cast. Don’t be afraid of leaving our species on our trash planet where we belong, storytellers. It’s the aliens we want. I don’t know about my fellow homo sapiens, but I’m kinda sick of earthly affairs and that’s why I’m watching your pretty space movie in the first place.

But I digress. I think the way I can best explain how this movie off-puts its sci-fi/fantasy tone is by explaining one scene.

So, Laureline and Valerian have to go to this marketplace (the name of which I forget) in order to stop a bad guy or something (listen, this movie is extremely forgettable). It’s an amazing concept, as I mentioned — an otherdimensional city-mall (not Coruscant, I promise) that you need to wear glasses to see & gloves to interact with. I’ll admit, the inner sci-fi nerd in me was geeking out to see this. It really is just cool, and it really succeeds in taking you to a different place.

But we keep focusing on this couple, this older white man and woman who are having a very cliched quarrel. Toward the end of the scene, we see them leaving the market with their belongings. He’s groaning that it’s useless junk, she’s arguing that it’s decorative. It’s a very typical old het married couple, a cliche trope for non-science fiction movies, a very outdated “my wife is crazy” type joke.

These two were minor characters, and yet their presence in the movie irritated me to the extreme. I was lost in how cool the setting was, really asking myself the big questions about how it all functioned on a scientific level and whatnot —  which means it was good storytelling! I was enthralled! — and yet this couple, whose lines of dialogues honestly could’ve been scrapped entirely and who looked more like two Floridian adults at a flea market, completely reminded me of how human the whole affair is. It ruined the magic, so to say. And that, to me, is a definite failure of the movie.

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Valerian & Laureline, and a view of what the marketplace looks like without the glasses

And it also stands with the Marie Antionette and Jessica Rabbit impersonators I mentioned. Like, are you kidding? Valerian takes place in the 28th century, people. How in the galaxy is it possible that in a place where thirty million (and more) diverse peoples are blending that the 1988 Earth film Who Framed Roger Rabbit is still relevant to anybody? And same with Marie Antoinette! She died in 1793, more or less than 800 years before the movie’s plot! Why is she still relevant, and who on Earth — sorry, Alpha –would want to sleep with a prostitute dressed as her?

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Bubble (Rihanna), dressed as a sexy Earth nurse. Have sexy nurse outfits not changed in the 28th century?

(As a sidenote, I honestly can’t say if my eyes deceived me when, in the final arc’s flashback to Mül, a group of Pearl children were off to the side as narration was occuring and one of them literally whipped & nae-nae’d. Someone please confirm if that actually happened or if I was hallucinating reasons to cringe at this movie. I can’t say it felt completely out of place with how Earth-catering this movie was, but if that was what my eyes saw … there are no words, except perhaps atrocious.)

And speaking of questionably written scenes … goodness gracious, this entire movie was questionably written, if not just badly.

I had a lot of problems with the writing (and editing) of this movie. It employed a lot of harmful cinematic tropes I really wish Hollywood could put behind itself, two of which in particular getting real comfortable right under my skin.

The first of which was… Bubble. Listen, I love Rihanna’s character Bubble. She was really cute and sweet and enjoyable, so much so that I kinda wished the movie I was watching was her life story instead of Mr. Boring White Man and Mrs. Slightly Less Boring White Woman. But sadly, Bubble was the victim of a lot of poor writing choices.

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Rihanna as Bubble

I’m afraid it’s a bit of an epidemic in science fiction that there are very little people of color, and even less women of color. I distinctly remember when Star Wars episode seven was coming out and it was announced that very beautiful & talented actress Lupita Nyong’o was playing a role. People were losing their minds in excitement at what kind of character she might be playing. Was it finally going to be a step forward in Star Wars & Hollywood as a whole’s poor track record regarding representation?

But no. Lupita Nyong’o voiced the animated alien character Maz Kanata. Who is amazing in the scheme of the movie, but … still, no dice in regards to representation.

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Lupita Nyong’o’s Force Awakens character Maz Kanata

Bubble was the same way. The only time we see Rihanna being her beautiful self is when she’s performing a pole dance and when she’s dying.

I’m not opposed to Bubble being an alien or having a true form like the one she often displays. As I said earlier, I wish this movie had had more aliens. But why does the only woman of color who is important to the plot have to be the shapeshifter? Did we really have to Lupita Nyong’o/Maz Kanata this? Can’t we just have one woman of color who is just human and has a normal role like noted white woman Laureline instead of coding all of these bound-to-die aliens to be a POC? Good Lord, it shouldn’t be this hard!

And also, the latter scene of Bubble’s death was extremely harmful. It was utterly useless. It wouldn’t have been hard whatsoever for Laureline, Valerine, and Bubble to admit that Bubble’s role in the grand scheme of things was no longer relevant, and for them all to have parted ways. Hell, the audience doesn’t even get to see what did Bubble in. We only get a vague, “I must have been wounded in the battle.”, which isn’t even believable, because in the previous fight scene, Bubble was fine!

Can we just stop uselessly killing off people of color in our movies? Please? Can 2017 be the year that we finally stop asking this question? Please?

And the other ill-written detail I noticed in this movie was the “Semi-competent male hero, hyper-competent female sidekick” trope. Take this nifty information from Vox:

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Source: http://vox.tumblr.com/

The snippets we see of Valerian amidst all of the action, we get shown a couple things about him. He’s a womanizer. He’s a self-proclaimed “bad boy”. And amongst it all… he has to be saved by Laureline a series of times within the scheme of the movie because of his own arrogance.

And yet who is the one who is foolishly & accidentally captured by the technologically-behind wood-cages of the troll-orc-alien-things in literally the least believable and most absurd arc in the movie? It’s Laureline!

Even though the resolution of the entire plot wouldn’t have happened if Laureline hadn’t readily & tearfully encouraged Valerian to pull his head out of his ass, we still celebrate that resolution by watching Valerian conquer her heart in the final scene, as if we’re supposed to believe that Valerian was the man in charge the entire time.

It was just… sad.

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Laureline and Valerian

Laureline’s character really was mistreated. Not only because she was paired with the most annoying male lead ever & is meant to be in a believable romantic relationship with him. Not only because she almost had her brains eaten out by an orc emperor while being treated like a pretty trinket by their whole species. Not only because even though she did all of the heavy lifting in the plot, Valerian gets the credit and his name in the movie’s title (despite the original comic book’s title being more polite by being Valerian and Laureline).

But because her character, in my opinion, was very… wishy washy. Her emotions and thoughts seemed to change depending on the scene, and I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily better than Valerian’s constant state of crookedly-smiling-mildly-charming-Han-Solo-esque-spry-boy.

In the beginning, Laureline is a straight-backed, no-nonsense woman. She won’t stand for Valerian’s womanizing crap; she won’t be another name on his playlist. The audience gets a sense that these two have a relationship that isn’t exactly healthy at the moment.

The next scene, Valerian proposes to her. She kisses his cheek. We see her smiling to herself at the thought. Wait, what? What happened to the Laureline that was calling Valerian out on being afraid of committment? What happened to the Laureline that was pissed off at her quasi-boyfriend for forgetting her birthday and then proposing a quick roll in the hay to make it all better? What happened to the Laureline who sees how full of crap he is?

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Comic book vs. Movie versions of Valerian & Laureline

Laureline is dedicated to their mission, and often has to remind Valerian to stay on track, to be more careful, et cetera, et cetera. We see her as serious and dedicated to her job, while we get a sense that Valerian is more of a slacker, someone who enjoys having wiggle room amidst the rules.

And yet by the end, they’ve completely flipped roles. Laureline voices that she “hate[s] protocol” and directly goes against her superiors, while Valerian uncharacteristically solemnly gives Laureline a spiel about how he’s a soldier, and how about obeying orders is all he’s ever known, blah, blah, blah.

Laureline, who has been somewhat against the idea of marrying or fooling around with Valerian and who has been extremely serious & emotionally controlled this entire movie, randomly sheds a tear while telling Valerian that love is stronger than anything else.

Valerian, who has been depicted as somewhat sweet in conversation by saying hi to almost everyone he comes across, and who is very obviously the romantic, emotional one, pretty much tells Laureline that yeah, maybe genocide is for the best in this situation.

It’s one of the oddest, most out of character confrontations/plot resolutions I’ve seen in a very long time. Sure, it does the job in terms of easing the story to its end, but I mean, what on Earth — sorry, Alpha! — is established character development, anyways? Might as well throw caution to the wind and cut to the two protagonists making out before the audience realizes what an absolute train wreck this movie is!

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I mean, this’d make a good poster, at least.

As you can tell, I have a lot of problems with this movie. We’ve narrowed it down to my minor problems, now, like why is the movie called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets when Valerine barely says anything and Laureline is cooler & Alpha isn’t even the planet in focus but Mül is AND also how Alpha isn’t even a city of a thousand planets like the title describes but rather a city that is a consummation of several cultures and people groups AND how the movie begins with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” which got my hopes up that this movie would have another Guardians of the Galaxy or Baby Driver-esque soundtrack but it didn’t because what is tone consistency!

Whew. Goodness gracious, I need to stop nitpicking.

Anyways, in conclusion, if you really want to watch Valerian, watch it for how utterly beautiful it is. Maybe mute its audio and play some nice music instead. You’ll probably have a more impactful experience that way, anyways.

Was this article too long, leaving you to understandably skim? In summary, Valerian is forgettable and gets a 2.5/5 from me.

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