Valerian's poster. Looks like tons of fun to me... (via EuropaCorp)
If you liked The Fifth Element you’ll love Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, right?
Well, hold on a minute. Not everybody agrees. The Fifth Element was profoundly influenced by the Valerian graphic novel. Director/Writer of The Fifth Element even invited the Valerian comic artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, to work on this film.
Now here we are 20 years later with a full-featured Valerian. The film begins with a montage of how the International Space Station kept expanding over the years and then over centuries. Throughout this time, extraterrestrial life visits the station, renamed “Alpha,” and some decide to stay and the station expands, so much so its size and mass dramatically affect the Earth. I found this thought intriguing. What if the mass brought to Earth from mining asteroids and other celestial objects slows its rotation? Could we even change Earth’s gravity?
For similar reasons, the now massive satellite, Alpha, had to be sent beyond Earth, through some sort of space current. The story picks up approximately 600 years into the future. Alpha is now a place where alien life gathers and exchanges ideas, technology and cultures. The station has grown exponentially, with new structures upon new structures. It contains different atmospheres, climates, oceans, and rampant lawlessness. It’s a mess really.
Valerian concept art (via Benmauro)
The montage ends, and we step out onto an oceanic planet, populated with what look like primitives connected to the planet, humanoid creatures, similar to those in Avatar.
But instead of a jungle, there are beaches and oceans. This idyllic life is shattered as ‘things’ blast through the atmosphere. These things pepper the scenes, turning electric blue to smoke and darkness, culminating into a city crushing giant ‘thing’ from the sky. I’ve left out most of the details of what else happens. It is critical to the whole story, so I don’t want to spoil it.
We are then introduced to our heroes: Valerian and Laureline, highly skilled special agents of the human government. Humans seem to be in charge of the future. They are a kooky couple with some strange relationship chemistry. They don’t seem to mix, or maybe they’re just too mixed already. It felt like they were already in a relationship before the story even began, which squelches all the tension.
I will say this, they both looked tired at all times. Which it a bit counter to the character images in the comic book. In the film, they seemed exhausted, which I was attributing to the fact they are essentially overworked police.
Of course, they are immediately pulled into a mission to get a “last of its kind” object from an alien world. This planet has a colossal market, except it’s in another dimension! At first, you only see people walking around a desert, but when you wear these special glasses, you can see the other-dimensional market. They can only interact with that dimension through a matter-displacement box. You stick the item in one side, it comes out in the other dimension.
Big Market concept art (via Benmauro)
The market is similar to The Fifth Element’s city, which, oddly enough, was actually borrowed from Valerian. After a fast blurry pan of the market—too fast to absorb it all—we are focused on few streets. Valerian locates the object in a black market trade in a back room kind of deal, a cliché seedy place but with aliens. The best part of his entire scene is Valerians’ disembodied hand sticking out of one half of the matter displacement boxes, just “floating” into the room. Because of his police powers, he gets the objects from the bad guys.
But when he leaves the room, an accident leads to a massive shootout, a harried chase, and all the requisite mayhem. The exchange is thrown into chaos. Since the earliest films ever made, it has been fun to see story protagonists smash through markets, and it still is. In Valerian, lots of that happens. Valerian's hand is caught in the other dimension, and it’s a race to get it out.
More Big Market concept art (via Benmauro)
What stood out for me in all these high-tech shenanigans was Valerian’s partner, Laureline, under immense pressures, fixes the dimensional box, even after pulling out a huge wad of wire. I want to believe this is a case of “on the shoulders of giants” whose knowledge has been accumulating over the past 600 years, like how kids today will know more about tech and history because they are so immersed in it. It’s inherited knowledge at this point, ingrained like birds knowing how to build a nest. At least, that’s what I want to believe here. Laureline fixes the box with ease, even without those other wires. (When was last time one of your projects worked perfectly after a wad of wires got ripped out of it?)
Alpha concept art (via Benmauro)
Next, the story leads us back to the space station, to Alpha; but the story tumbles with a bit of a thud.
Valerian film promotions claim the film has the most alien life forms ever showcased. Okay. Some are in the background and walk-ons, but our characters will never interact with them. Just visual candy. At this point, the film returns to familiar science fiction territory. The ultimate bad guy is a bit of a joke, so I am not going to analyze the story too much. Honestly, I wanted the story to move faster at this point, usually not a good sign in a first viewing.
As impressive as the visuals were, like the dimensional market, the filming was rapid, quick cuts. They spent $200 million on this film, and they don’t stop the camera movement on the larger set pieces for even a moment. The filmmaker should have let us experience the grandeur of this awesome station a little longer, meander a little, immerse us in it.
From start to finish, the story isn’t very complex. There weren’t any real funny moments. The death of one character, featured prominently on the poster, was not necessary at all. You’ll see what I mean. And the camera movement was way too fast (like in parts of the Hobbit trilogy, if you’ve watched those). Given all this, I’m not surprised at the lackluster box office.
Will Valerian have the science fiction cult following of The Fifth Element? Time will tell, but my money says no. The setting and universe might be worth another crack at it, though. A reboot? An animated version? Now, you’re talking.
I had super high hopes for Valerian to be 2017’s blockbuster science fiction movie… I was partially wrong.
I rate this 3.01 out of 5.00.
ps. The Fifth Element now has a 4k Blu-ray edition. Valerian had me pretty hype for a rewatching of the classic, and it did not disappoint.