Review: Valerian’s huge problems sink a very pretty film

I just watched Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets, and it reminded me of an issue of the magazine Heavy Metal, circa 1989, in the best and worst possible ways.

First, the best ways:  The movie is visually imaginative, riotiously so. The opening sequence, for example, is a great bit of visual moviemaking.

Sadly, this visual element is nowhere near enough to redeem the large flaws the rest of the film has. In no particular order:

1. Dane DeHaan (as Valerian) sounds like he’s trying to do a Matrix-era Keanu Reeves impersonation throughout.

2. Valerian is an insufferable asshat throughout the movie. He’s just a jerk, and often only succeeds due to others saving his ass. Cara Delevingne’s Laureline is a competent character but largely one-dimensional and flat.

3. The entire “romantic” subplot is quite literally a case of sexual harassment, as Laureline, his partner, is a “sergeant”. That means she’s enlisted, and quite definitely junior to Valerian’s commissioned rank of “major”. And yes, she starts off rejecting him, but stomach-churningly comes around to care about this churl that she has to keep saving.

4. The “humor” seems crammed in at the last second, isn’t funny, and is pretty uniformly sexist.

5. Rhianna’s cameo (as “Bubbles”) is largely a several minute long pole-dancing performance, literally embodying the concept of the male gaze, since Valerian is sitting there watching her the whole time. The tacked on “immigration” bit doesn’t help.

6. We’re not given enough time (or reason) to empathize with any of the characters who sacrifice themselves – except for the race we see immediately after the credits, which we then see our nominal protagonists try to fight for a good portion of the movie. Since we see the aliens first, our expectation is that we’re going to empathize with them and quite a bit of time … too much time … is spent lingering over their soon-to-be-obliterated island paradise. So to then see these unlikable “protagonists” fighting them is really problematic.

7. The visuals take second-place to worldbuilding or coherence.  At one point we see Valerian (literally) shoulder his way through the walls of multiple habitats in a space station.  Habitats which are not compatible with each other (water, gas, terrestrial) before finally shouldering his way into space.  It’s treated as a “whoops, the woman got the directions wrong” joke (told you about the sexist bit), and completely ignores that Valerian just killed a bunch of civilians because, um, he just compromised a bunch of habitats required to sustain different times of life!  Nobody ever even notices or pays attention to the deaths he surely caused, but that kind of callousness and stupidity is, sadly, endemic here.

And that’s just what I bothered to remember.

So if, like me, you were waiting to see Valerian at home after the initial ho-hum reviews, I’d highly recommend against it unless you have no other source of shiny pretty graphics available.

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