Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, directed by Luc Besson (2017).
Score: takes off with a bang, goes out with a poof.
When I was a kid, in the late Nineties, my dad subscribed to cable. The Fifth Element had just come out, they aired it several times a week at different times and it became a family tradition that we watched it to the end every time it came up. I always went to bed on a cloud, lulled by Korben and Leeloo’s kiss in Eric Serra’s “Little light of love”.
So I went to see Valerian quite gingerly, having seen the mixed reviews. The first and second acts of Valerian are a crazy flurry of action and colour, insanely fun and light-hearted, but at the same time visually and technologically ambitious and unrestrained. Then, for some reason, the third act deflates and has you leave the cinema with a bad taste in your mouth.
Major Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are a pair of special operatives, who happen to be sexually involved, tasked with recovering a stolen Converter, a small animal that is pretty much the goose that laid the golden egg. Valerian has had a vision of a distant planet where these beings lived, inhabited by pearly humanoids that got exterminated from orbit by a mysterious dreadnought. Back in Alpha, the eponymous City of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) in the wake of an unknown blight that is infecting the core of Alpha.
The similarities with The Fifth Element are not just due to Besson’s tastes: both are based on Valérian et Laureline, a French comic book series running from 1967 to 2010 (Star Wars also borrowed heavily from it, for what it’s worth). Valerian is visually stunning: hypersaturated colour, careful art and costume design in the best tradition of space opera and state-of-the-art special effects. It is also action-packed from the very beginning: after introducing the Pearls, we dive head-first into the fun and compelling section of the Big Market, an ingenious retrieval mission on multiple dimensions. Back in Alpha, Valerian and Laureline get into exciting adventures and meet quirky characters when trying to unravel the mystery of the dead zone in the heart of the massive space station. And then, when it is time to wrap everything up, for some reason, the whole thing becomes utterly uninteresting, which is really weird because the challenges of the first two acts are resolved very efficiently.
If you are a fan of The Fifth Element or light-hearted space opera in the vein of Futurama, I’d advise you give it a try. Even though it crumbles towards the end, I’d say the experience was positive overall.
I’ll try to figure out why the ending fails, but for that I need the SPOILER TAG!
I think what sets everything off for failure is killing off Bubble (Rihanna). Bubble is an incredibly interesting character: a shapeshifter that wants to be an actress, highly educated and trained, but who has no other choice than to work as a prostitute on account of being an illegal immigrant in Alpha. Valerian convinces her to help him infiltrate the Boulan Bathor to rescue Laureline by promising her papers; Bubble gets killed in the aftermath of the Boulan Bathor banquet and Valerian really doesn’t give two shits about it.
Let me detour a bit: Valerian is an asshole. We know from the first time he’s on screen. Making such an unlikeable character your protagonist in a light-hearted action movie ultimately about how love and forgiveness conquer all promises a character arc in which Valerian stops being, you know, an asshole. You spend the whole movie waiting for whatever made Laureline like him in the first place to become apparent, but you only get a half-assed attempt at the end of it.
So, Bubble looks like she’s going to be the Valerian equivalent of Ruby Rhod: the funny sidekick that raises the stakes and helps the third act go out with a boom. No, she’s not. I believe Besson didn’t know what to do with her in the final showdown against Commander Filitt and couldn’t figure how to make Bubble and Valerian go their separate ways, so he killed her off. Valerian accepts meekly that there’s nothing he can do to save her (he doesn’t even look particularly worried, for someone whose mission is to protect and serve) because Besson thought the story not only didn’t need her anymore, but absolutely needed her gone. There is a side effect to this: Valerian looks like even more of an asshole. He dragged her to danger with the promise of a better life, got her killed and didn’t even care. It’s hard to swallow a happy ending where Bubble didn’t get to try her luck as an actress because she got killed in an absurd way.
Anyway, Laureline and Valerian get to the core of Alpha and find out, to the suprise of absolutely nobody, that there is nothing dangerous there. They walk into a hangar and the Pearls are there. The Emperor then goes into an extremely long and boring verbal exposition of what happened to them, most of which we know already. I suspect executive meddling here to make sure everyone in the audience is perfectly clear on what happened, in case they were distracted. I find it curious because the opening sequence with the different captains of the ISS greeting visitors, and eventually aliens, is a great example of show-don’t-tell and then the climax, supposed to be the moment of maximum tension, is muddled with insufferable exposition dialogue.
This is the moment when Valerian could have shown how all this adventure, his love and admiration for Laureline and the moving ability of the Pearls for forgiveness have really made him a new man. Only he doesn’t. Laureline being tired and jaded and refusing to give them the Converter, with Valerian showing that he has changed in his journey and is now capable of love, convincing her of breaking the law for a more personal sense of justice, would have made much more sense. It’s risible that the Empress thinks her daughter made a great choice of host with Valerian. Laureline was literally next to him and she’s the most capable, caring and just character in the whole movie.
On an unrelated note, I was suprised by how the Converter is quite wasted as a MacGuffin. It’s a little animal that poops pearls, or whatever you feed it. Millions have been killed for much less. But in the end, nobody is actually looking for it, only the Pearls, because they need it to rebuild their homeworld; what Commander Filitt wanted was to cover up the genocidal order he gave, which makes sense. But it’s weird that no one else is after the Converter. Even though Filitt has deleted all records related to the Pearls and Mül, there is someone who knows the Converter exists and what it does: Igon Siruss, the fence on Big Market. And if he knows, the black market knows. How come nobody tries to steal it from Laureline, not even once?
It’s a high stakes game that ultimately becomes nothing. Laureline and Valerian contact General Okto-Bar, in charge since Commander Filitt is missing, and spill the beans. And everyone goes like: “boy, the man is a bastard, fuck the chain of command and court-martial, let’s just do whatever we feel is the right thing, never mind that we’re the fucking military. Let’s wave these guys goodbye and hope the diplomats sort everything out.” The Fifth Element was much simpler, and worked much better: the huge ball is pure evil and wants to end all life because of reasons. Period. If you want something more complex, both the motivations and the resolution need to be more complex.