Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


I wish this was a foreign language film.

More on that in a second. When this movie was coming out, I not-so-secretly hoped it would be a surprise hit, and when it wasn't, I begrudgingly skipped it in theaters. Fast forward four months -- it only needed to be worth the $5 rental on Amazon, and as a visually spectacular space adventure it was every bit as great as it needed to be. It was fun. It was different. It was colorful, and inventive, and oh-so-very scifi. And it was dragged down by its distractingly bad script -- competing with those spectacular visuals, but in a tragic way.

Based on a French comic book series; adapted and directed by in an operatic The Fifth Element tone + Avatar-level visuals. 

So while I was casually bemoaning the jarring disconnect between Valerian's script and Valerian's literally-everything-else, it occurred to me that the movie could have been a well-rounded and spectacular experience if only I didn't understand what the characters were saying -- like in G├ąten Ragnarok, a Norwegian adventure flick I watched once sans subtitles. Done on a whim, it turned out to be a fascinating experiment, to see what I assume is a fairly basic adventure plot stripped of its clarity. The extra layer of ambiguity created the appearance of depth. I assume I missed a lot, but I understood it more than I expected I would, on a subtle, instinctual level.

If Valerian had been in French, and if I had watched it without the subtitles, the characters would have appeared to be deeper (at the cost of understanding what little development they do have) and the plot wouldn't have been handed out on a silver platter, but it still would have been a perfectly serviceable flick. The biggest thing I figure I wouldn't have understood is that Valerian is waiting the whole movie for Laureline to answer his marriage proposal. And that would still work since their romantic will-they-won't-they tension is obvious. Even the strangest of plot events are understandable without the exposition applied to them.

Supporting cast includes Ethan Hawke (as you can see) Clive Owen, and Rihanna. Rihanna is the only memorable one.

Like, the parallel dimension that is only visible through special goggles, or Valerian needing to find a shape-shifting alien, or Laureline sticking her head in a magical jellyfish to psychically divine Valerian's location. Even the Pearl Princess' spirit being inside Valerian comes across visually eventually. They are presented on screen in a very comprehensible way, and the dialogue explaining them only gives a name to the scifi craziness. The script is almost exclusively used for explaining things -- mostly way before an explanation is wanted. Though occasionally subtle wit plays off the dialogue, like when Laureline is advised to change out of her bikini for the mission, and shows up wearing a completely different bikini. Details like that would have been lost. They're charming moments, but in the vast minority overall.

There were whole scenes dedicated to redundant exposition, some featuring characters we never get to know at all. The ship's computer lady's sole function was to explain things to the audience. We see the Pearl Princess die the film's second prologue, and then the Pearl Emperor retells the story again later. At that point, I'm overfed with the info and getting bored. The movie needs to show it all happen because it's a hyper visual movie, and never realizes that it's telling everything too, taking up valuable dialogue time with nothingness, and devaluing the story. The veil of ambiguity that a language barrier would provide would at that point actually enhance the experience. Instead of being told what's going on and then watching it play out, it'd be a mystery; in invitation to be engaged in the story.

Pretty butterfly...

In many ways it would've helped with Valerian and Laureline's characters too. Both are underdeveloped, but also possess unique details about them that come through visually. That is to say, they would be so much more interesting if they stopped opening their mouths and speaking such dry, lifeless and/or useless words. I love how they use teamwork so casually, doing things in sync or handing off objects without having to look. I don't care for , but man, if she isn't pretty good in this. Weirdly, Laureline is a better character than Valerian, even though he gets the movie's solid-if-simple theme as a character arc. I'm giving the benefit of doubt and assuming he underplayed on purpose. The borderline deadpan thing works for him though, and I think he only succeeds in losing interest to his co-star because Valerian spends a certain amount of time invisible, or shape-shifted, or just not doing anything. The camera is a big fan of Laureline's, and she gets more to do.

Both, also, are unconventional, and I love seeing unconventional characters played by unexpected (and arguably miscast) actors leading films like this. It doesn't play by the regular action blockbuster rules, and that is always refreshing. It also totally embraces the cliches and tropes of action and scifi flicks of ye olden days. That timer stops at 1 second left with such aplomb you almost don't even notice the cliche. And the "love conquers all" theme is so cheesy, yet so unapologetic. And seriously, that opening to David Bowie's Space Oddity -- there are few quicker routes into the heart of a fan of science fiction than a sequence like that.

*Slowly realizes that I really really like this movie*

If you were to remake the movie shot-for-shot, and only change the spoken words, it could have been worlds better. Planets better. Like HUNDREDS of planets better. Probably not thousands. Let's not blow things out of proportion here. I mean honestly, even with the drag-chute of a script, the movie is not bad, and the bad script adds to the ambiance in its own way. The characters do get arcs, the plot does makes sense (which is a pretty impressive feat considering how wacky this world is), and everything that is done visually truly is spectacular. It's amazingly creative, and does the adventure thing wonderfully well, reminding me of the old, classic style of scifi adventures. It takes a gazillion pointless rabbit trails, but then the rabbit trails wind up being the best parts. The lack of convention is part of the charm.

And anyway, the scifi is so gleeful and interesting, you almost don't need the characters to be any more compelling, or the plot to be any more complex -- you don't want to distract from what you have, and what I'm sure the main point of the movie is. (To be fun and spectacular!) But as I've learned, simple plots can be engaging if they aren't over-explained, and character depth is easy to imply with strategic use of subtlety and some talented actors. Valerian is no slouch, but its script certainly leaves lots to be desired. Normally when a script lacks, the obvious solution is to add more to it, but in this case, I think a little discarding might've been a handier option.

Sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is more. This movie has the "more is more" part down in spades.

So yeah, I wish it was a foreign language movie so I could watch it without subtitles -- kinda. At this point I've seen it twice and I'm already getting used to the script's dull moments of redundant explanation, and am appreciating what character we do get, and all the other unusual tidbits that you genuinely can't get anywhere else. So I guess in the end I got what I wanted, because all I really wanted was to be able to see past the uninspired dialogue that was clouding up this unusual and visual scifi treat. And I have. And the view from here is pretty spectacular. So! Any chance of a sequel?


  1. Ahh, very interesting. :)
    I KNEW I recognized that guy from somewhere... then it hit me that he was Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man. :D Kind of funny when you can't figure out the actor.
    Great post!

    1. Yep he was Harry! Haha, that kind of thing happens to me a lot. It can be very bothersome if you can't think of who it is!
      Thank you! :D