Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Watching Valerian and the Movie with the Ridiculously Long Harry Potter–esque Title was a strange experience. I can’t say I liked it overall.

I think what grated most was the absurd idealization of the beautiful, innocent, peaceful aliens. They’re harder to relate to than gods or robots! In religions across the world, supernatural beings (with the notable exception of Cthulhu) always have some human behavioral characteristics that help us understand, admire, and/or emulate them. In Asimov’s science fiction stories about robots, even the robots are more complicated (and thus more interesting) than these aliens, because even with only a scant handful of unbreakable rules to follow, conflict is inevitable.

Yes, the innocents are aliens, so we could imagine that they have a society infinitely freer of conflict than any we’ve ever come across, but there’s really no point putting them in a human story if they are impossible to identify with. Nevertheless, not only are they in this story, they are the story. If it’s not possible to care about them, then why would anybody want to watch this movie?

Well, Valerian contains a lot of surprising, inventive, and beautiful, uh, stuff. As this guardian review puts it:

Valerian has the courage of its fearsome convictions, and if you’re willing to overlook things like acting, plot, characterization, dialogue, character arcs, pacing, structure and leads, as many science fiction die-hards are willing to do, then Valerian is a nifty spectacle that excels as eye-candy even if it comes up short in every other respect.

In other words, maybe it’s cult-classic material, albeit not for my particular kind of cult.

More opinions below, with SPOILERS.

What I didn’t like about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

The beautiful blue aliens are doomed, regardless.
According to my understanding, biologically and culturally, populations that fall below a certain size deteriorate. There isn’t enough genetic variation to protect them from the propagation of mutations that cause disease, and there aren’t enough people for strong technical and leadership skills to be acquired and passed on. These aliens, it has been pointed out, do not seem to struggle to gain technical skills, but I think the point still stands: there aren’t enough of them left to survive for long. The struggle to regain the energy pearl and escape to a new homeworld thus struck me as moot.

The converter species is even more obviously doomed.
Unless it is a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite (like a plant or some of the arthropods), the one remaining specimen will not be able to reproduce. Anyone the least bit sympathetic to animal conservation efforts, anyone remotely familiar with the Noah’s Ark story, and anyone with a even a rudimentary knowledge of reptile biology could have pointed out to the filmmakers that saving the very last, unique example of a kind of animal is merely closing the door after the horse has left the barn. Even if the protagonists had schlepped around a pair of converters inside the McGuffin tube for the whole movie, the outlook for the species would be pretty bleak, again because of lack of genetic variation.

Get ready to meet the emperor for dinner.
I’m bothered by the gut-twisting horror of being dressed up nicely (presumably to serve as a slave) only to be served as food. I feel like I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but the best examples I can think of are the baby oysters who were successfully led to their deaths in the 1951 cartoon movie Alice in Wonderland (WTF, Disney?!), and possibly a scene in the Faerie Tale Theatre version of “The Frog Prince”, where the frog (awkwardly played by Robin Williams) dances in a shower of seasonings without realizing someone is intending to cook him. The Chinese film Monster Hunt (2015) has a scene every bit as disturbing as the death of the baby oysters, even though the victim doesn’t actually die. There might be a huge stash of examples on TV Tropes somewhere if I only knew what to call this sort of thing. “Lamb led to the slaughter”, maybe? In most of the examples I can find, the protagonists are anything but oblivious; they have an all-too-clear idea of the danger, like Sebastian in the hilarious kitchen scene with the French chef in The Little Mermaid.

Valerian and the Utter Failure of Diplomacy
Valerian goes to great lengths to recruit a shapeshifter to sneak into the ugly aliens’ compound so as not to cause a disturbance. While he’s freeing the shapeshifter from bondage (so she can give her life helping rescue his partner), the emperor of the ugly aliens prepares to eat a human law enforcer, seemingly unconcerned about how this act will be viewed by others on the station. Subsequently, Valerian straight-up kills the ugly alien emperor (along with many other ugly aliens), also with no regard for consequences. The movie seems to be telling us it’s okay for a trafficked exotic dancer to die, but that it’s not okay for a privileged pretty white girl to die; that it’s okay to kill ugly brown aliens who will apparently eat anything or anyone and who conveniently don’t speak English or keep translators around, but that it’s not okay to kill beautiful blue vegetarian aliens who harvest valuable energy pearls, live in harmony with rare, cute creatures, and moreover, incidentally, can send their souls out to possess people, thus causing them feel sympathy across the unmeasured vastness of space and time.

Valerian and Laureline and the City of Whatever
She’s given half the movie poster, but she doesn’t get a mention in the title. Moviemakers have realized they’ve got to make the women strong and independent, but they still have a tendency to hang the plot on the male hero, who in this case is a jerk who doesn’t deserve the love of his female partner (sidekick?) at the end of the story any more than he did at the beginning, in my opinion.

What I did like about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

I liked the world the movie is set in. One could tell a lot of stories in a city that, like the world of Zootopia, brings a wide variety of different beings together. I liked the introduction to the space station, which links the past and present with this vision of the future. The station itself was a pleasingly eclectic conglomeration of miscellany that reminded me somewhat of the (admittedly much scrappier) drifter colony in Titan A.E. (2000).

I also liked:

  • the virtual marketplace and the tech necessary for trading in it,
  • the shapeshifter, and
  • the comic trio of duck-like traders.

I don’t know to what extent the movie comes from the French comic book source material and to what extent it is the genuine brainchild of Luc Besson, who by all accounts poured his heart, soul, and wallet into this expensive commercial flop. As if making art weren’t hard enough, getting people to like your art is even harder. Tough luck, Luc.