Let me explain — it’s not a serious spoiler. We start with human exploration of space, jumping forward, using the international space station as the setting. Using the motif of a handshake, we see different nations and cultures arriving, one after another. Then aliens arrive, and we then see one species after another, each so beautifully designed that your eyes are hungry for more, until this is routine. The sequence is mostly silent in term of dialogue, as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” plays — which is a bit on the nose, but it doesn’t matter because the sequence doesn’t take itself too seriously. Within minutes, the movie bypasses all the usual first contact sequences, using a brilliant music video to rush forward through decades, until humanity is part of a community of species.
From there, we cut to an alien planet. We know nothing about the planet, and most of the dialogue isn’t translated. They perform rituals we don’t understand. Their culture isn’t ours. But it’s beautiful — painfully beautiful. The design work, of an alien beach with shell-shaped houses on mounds, is stunning. And we’re immersed in it. There’s an animal that does something strange, and even the objects these aliens hold are intricate things of beauty.
Admittedly, when we finally cut to Valerian and his partner Laureline, things slow a bit. We get some traditional and undeniably cliched dialogue, which seems to set up their central dynamic. They seem young and uncompelling. The ship’s design, including the various devices the characters use, are more interesting than the characters. We’re also in the third sequence of the movie, none of which have connected yet. This movie feels like it might go off the rails.
But then we’re off on a mission. It’s got a cool sequences and smart ideas, even if the central conceit of its dramatic chase doesn’t quite make sense. That’s to be expected, these days, when blockbusters are full of sound and fury and plot holes.
Fortunately, the movie keeps getting better. Most of the plot takes place on Alpha, the “city of a thousand planets” of the movie’s full title. It’s a multicultural paradise, and it’s here that the movie hits its stride. The movie’s sheer beauty and absurd compression of ideas is simply dazzling. There’s a jellyfish with psychic powers. There’s also a shape-changer who’s part of a very Alice in Wonderland moment that’s more genuinely creepy than anything I’ve seen in any Alice adaptations.
I even warmed up considerably to the movie’s two main protagonists. In fairness, I’m not one who really feels I have to identify with characters, let alone like them — although I don’t pretend to be immune to either. But the characters — and their dynamic — certainly grows, as time goes on.
Watching Valerian, I kept thinking that it’s the best Star Trek movie in years. It’s a bright future, in which humanity’s part of a multicultural community. But classic Trek always struggled with Roddenberry’s dislike for dystopian aspects, and this movie doesn’t shy away from the darkness within humanity. But if you think that Star Trek into Darkness should get points for characters doing the right thing, Valerian should get ten times those points. Even better, it gets at the idea of making recompense for past mistakes. And while the movie plays on the “noble savage” myth, it doesn’t belabor this like Avatar, and its “savages” are actually adept at learning technology, once exposed to it.
The movie’s also a rather fascinating — and I think admirable — negotiation of masculinity in 2017. This is inevitable, given the movie’s set-up, in which Valerian is the main character (and sole character in the title), while Laureline is the sidekick. The French comics on which the movie is based were written in an earlier era, but Laureline still got to rescue Valerian and got to be the focus at times. That’s true in the movie as well, with long stretches focused on Laureline. The two rescue one another. Moreover, Laureline doesn’t like Valerian’s macho tendencies, his difficulty being vulnerable or intimate. Yes, Valerian still wants to feel like “a man” — a tendency the closing song (also a bit on the nose) makes clear in its repeated lyrics. Oh, and there’s also an extended sequence featuring a softcore show (and its problematic starring character) — which I’m willing to forgive only because of the shocking imagination and design of the sequence. And because it’s, you know, French. Seriously, there’s no denying it’s fan service, but there’s also no denying it’s art. But if Valerian keeps one foot in the macho world of pulp sci-fi adventure (with a French twist), it’s still more equitable and conscious of its inevitable gender issues than 99% of action movies. For all his faults, Valerian is a man who’s comfortable with (and with listening to) a strong woman. The movie’s certainly imperfect on this issue, but it pretty ably adapts the male-dominated sci-fi adventure genre to 2017. The story might be set in the future, but Valerian is very much a man of 2017, who knows masculinity has to change but is still struggling with his own conceptions. This is a movie that’s not free of privilege, whether white or male or Western, but centers its plot around the need to deconstruct these systems.
But these are just my first analytical thoughts. They pale by comparison to the sheer sense of joy I felt, lost in fascinating ideas and stunning designs, packed so tightly that my eyes fought greedily to take it all in.
No, Valerian is not a perfect movie. It’s certainly a blockbuster of our times, in which elaborate CGI dazzles, while plot holes are increasingly tolerated. But Valerian has fewer plot holes than most, and lifts CGI razzle-dazzle to a new level of finely composed artistic beauty. This is especially clear when comparing Valerian to recently praised sci-fi spectacles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek Beyond. If you liked those, Valerian is on the next level.
It might help if you’ve seen — and liked — Luc Besson’s earlier film The Fifth Element. I remember seeing that in theaters, noting the adaptation of comic-book panel juxtapositions and the obvious influence of French sci-fi comics. But The Fifth Element is also filled with hokey elements which are ultimately forgivable because the story’s a metaphor. If you can get past those, you can certainly get past the hokier parts of Valerian. And if The Fifth Element has become a cult classic, watched by more people on TV than in theaters, Valerian deserves at least as much influence.
Valerian deserves a better fate in theaters. If Besson’s Taken (which I’ve always, only a bit tongue-in-cheek, described to my French students as what the French think of us Americans, with the movie’s commercial success proving that they’re right) deserved to be a hit, so does Valerian. It takes America’s current blockbuster formula and does it not just better, but more beautifully and less brutally.
And if that doesn’t convince you to see it on the big screen, consider this: at over $200 million, it’s the most expensive independent movie ever made. It’s big-budget “tentpole” movie without a big-studio tent, and it probably deserves your support for that alone.
More than once during the movie, I thought about the way people have described feeling, watching the original Star Wars in theaters (a film the French comic partially inspired). Valerian has that same sense of visual wonder with a swashbuckling plot. You could fill whole series with the crazy ideas that Valerian uses as packing material.
Driving home after the movie, my eyes kept darting around, picking up visual bits here and there, as if hyper-aware. I couldn’t get them to stop, and I couldn’t figure out why… until I realized I’d been doing this through the whole movie.
My mind couldn’t stop. But even more importantly, I haven’t enjoyed a movie this much in a long, long while. I’m a tough sell, compared to most people, and Valerian astonished me.