I am quite a fan of Luc Besson and I have read (though not exhaustively) the original Valerian & Laureline albums his latest movie is based on, so when the movie was announced I was looking forward to another fun sci fi experience along the lines of The Fifth Element.
Then the reviews started to come in and the news was not good. I however decided to give the movie a chance and see for myself, so off I went to the cinema.
Unfortunately, the reviews were right. It’s a stinker. Let’s see, from my perspective, what went wrong.
(Some spoilers beyond this point, although frankly this movie isn’t the kind where you’re being denied any surprises by reading about the plot in advance…)
Flashy visuals – just like a video game!
Some people have criticised the movie for looking like a videogame cutscene, and I feel this hits a central point that may be affecting filmmakers of Besson’s generation like Ridley Scott and Lucas before them – I don’t think they’re familiar with the level of visual quality that the video games medium has achieved.
Truth be told, there’s no shame in achieving the visual quality level of a video game cutscene – Video games nowadays have absolutely unbeatable visual quality, and therein lies the rub. For someone like Besson who is likely not a gamer, the power modern cgi techniques gives them is likely intoxicating, they can achieve set pieces and sequences that before were completely beyond their reach.
But for a modern audience coming from the latest playstation hit, these graphics are no longer a selling point, they’re the bare minimum. More importantly, the vicarious thrill of putting yourself in the place of the hero can be far better realized in a game where you actually do control the hero or heroine in first or 3rd person view. The sequence where Valerian in space armor crashes through tunnels chasing the alien kidnappers is certainly well made but for this generation of viewers it cannot match the intensity of directing Commander Shepard, Leon Kennedy or Solid Snake through similarly well choreographed and visually impressive gauntlets while in the driver’s seat.
So, so much for visuals and vicarious thrills. We still enjoy movies though even if they can’t directly compete anymore in those aspects. How about plot, likable characters and situations?
Valerian and Laureline: Black Ops squad edition
A lot of people have focused on the actors, whether they looked the part, whether they had the acting skills to convey their lines, whether the interaction was or was not believable. I’ll leave that aside to focus on more plot related aspects of the character’s behaviour. To wit: Their ruthlessness. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be space cops (Space & Time cops actually but the time travel aspect has been dropped from the movie, probably because it would make things even more complicated. In the comics, Laureline is supposed to come from the middle ages originally, perhaps that could explain some of her attitudes) but in this movie they act and behave more like black ops hatchetmen.
Consider the first mission – they invade an alien market where they clearly have no jurisdiction, shoot up the locals and escape with a stolen artifact. This theft was the whole objective of the mission.
During this black op, V & L are aided by a number of soldiers, whom they seem to have a good working relationship with. Every single one of those soldiers is killed in this mission, in variously horrible ways (Mostly eaten alive) and yet the general who sent them has only one concern, that they arrived 10 or 15 minutes late to deliver the mcguffin he sent them to get.
Or, consider Valerian shooting a fellow trooper with an ice gun. Probably it’s non lethal, but we’ve already established that this space station is, despite being nominally under human control, a dangerous place where defenseless humans risk being carried off and eaten. Never mind that the guy was willing to help and had just been ordered to assist our hero.
As for Laureline, in the comics she’s supposed to have a good relationship with the Shingouz, bird like aliens who live by selling information. In the movie she gets her way by shooting one of them through the wing, and threatening to continue torturing them if they don’t help. These characters would be quite justified in betraying her, but 40 years of comic book continuity, where they are fast friends, papers over little things like bullet holes.
Beats override plot
The character’s plot armor is almost more visible than their bulky space suits, again I’m reminded of Ridley Scott, cheerfully confessing in DVD commentary tracks for Prometheus (Another famously nonsensical movie) that scenes happened in order to provide a “beat”. Besson too seems to subordinate plot coherence to the necessity to chain along “cool scenes”. Let’s consider the two parallel rescue sub plots: Both Laureline and later Valerian rescue each other from peril through means that are, to put it mildly, indirect.
Valerian crashes his ship and falls unconscious. Up to this point, he was easy to track inside the space station but now plot demands that he be lost. So Laureline must go on a weird quest to steal a jellyfish from a bunch of alien whales that live in the space station in order to use the jellyfish’s psychic powers to grant her a clue as to where Valerian ended up. Conveniently, Valerian caught a glimpse of a maintenance panel which gives the clue needed to find him. One can’t help but wonder if maybe she could’ve just done a search pattern in a straight line from the last point he was seen at and saved herself a bit of trouble.
Immediately afterwards, Laureline herself is kidnapped by Ogre-like alien residents of the station, and Valerian has to engage in his own sidequest to rescue her. The justification for this subplot is that the aliens have their own jurisdiction and Valerian cannot just blast his way in there, despite the fact he casually blows the head off the alien who tried to capture him. If instead of kidnapping an alien shapeshifter and murdering her boss he had just shot it out with the half dozen guards at the entrance and freed Laureline there and then he would’ve ended up with a rather smaller kill count. And the point of avoiding a diplomatic incident becomes rather moot when he actually kills the alien’s king during the rescue. Not to mention he gets the innocent shapeshifter bubbles killed too. At least in this case he has the decency to notice and look sad for about 30 seconds.
Just One Bad Apple…
And what about the big bad, Clive Owen’s evil Commander ? Despite the fact he is the cause of the conflict and is quite unequivocally and cartoonishly evil, this is not a character who seems to have much agency. He destroys the alien’s planet as collateral damage fighting a battle against a clearly formidable enemy, and then attempts to cover up his actions. But we’re never given a sense that what he does is all that extraordinary considering the ruthlessness exhibited by his organization. He is caught flatfooted by the aliens he uncaringly genocided, and spends most of the movie as a captive, except near the end when he releases the killbots as a last ditch effort to go down in a blaze of glory (A plot twist so predictable even the soldiers in the movie complained about it, as if they knew they would inevitably turn on them eventually)
My point isn’t that the baddie isn’t a bad guy, more that he doesn’t seem to be particularly out of alignment with his organization. Much like you could focus on a particular Nazi in a WWII movie, but he’s still, you know, part of a larger Evil Organization.
The same one our heroes belong to…
Is there anyone at all competent in this movie?!?
Well, yes actually. The androgynous aliens who have their paradise planet blown up from under them by Owens’ Space Mcarthur pick themselves up after surviving by the skin of their teeth in a derelict spaceship hull. They figure out advanced techonology, infiltrate their enemies’ stronghold, capture the man responsible for their downfall and obtain the McGuffin that they need to restore their civilization. And our heroes… just get in the way, really. These “victims” are competent, ethical (They don’t kill anyone, which is more than can be said about the movie’s purported heroes) and don’t really need anyone’s help to get back on their feet. In fact the most heroic thing Valerian and Laureline do is letting them have the mcGuffin that belongs to them in the first place.
It’s not inaccurate to say that if our protagonists had stayed in their simulated beach and skipped their whole adventure, the universe would’ve been clearly better off.