Die Hard on a Space Station, from the Director of
Die Hard in Space The Fifth Element.
I’m going to be completely honest with you. This movie is a guilty pleasure of mine. It will not appeal to everyone and that’s okay.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the French comic book series Valerian and Laureline. The sci-fi action adventure flick was released in July of 2017 and brought in $40 million at the Box Office [source: rotten tomatoes] with an estimated budget of $177 million [source: imbd]. I don’t know much about movie finances, but I think that is considered a flop. So did the Guardian in this post from August 2017. However, it’s cumulative worldwide gross at the end of 2017 was just under $226 million [imbd].
Besides the enormous amount spent on the film, the other notable fact that makes this film unique that it was an independent film. And therefore not necessarily confined to the strict narrative scope that a major movie studio would require.
Almost everything I’ve heard about this movie or read about it is that it is visually stunning. Not only is it the conclusion that everyone reaches, it is the first thing that is stated about the film. Followed shortly by the stating the amazing aesthetic of the movie provides little cover for a meandering and sometimes disappearing plot. And then followed up by a few less than kind comments on the performances delivered by the cast.
I agree with the praise for the visual and would elevate it some. There are multiple battle and chase scenes that are very impressive. I know all the rage in sci-fi movies now is to have spaceships battle it out in broad day light on a planet, but superb craftsmanship still gets acknowledged in my book even if it is following a trend that might be considered a little dated by some sci-fi movie snobs.
I’m somewhat forgiving on the plot, because… well I’ll get to the plot in a bit. And I think the performances were delivered well and are deserving of praise.
I liked the movie more than I thought I would. At a friend’s recommendation I watched it a second time within the same week and enjoyed it even more.
It had a feel to it like the Fifth Element did, which makes sense since both movies were directed by the same person. (He also directed the Taken Movies. This guy is a career professional).
Other people mentioned that their first impression was that some of the aliens looked like they were ripped off from Avatar. Having never seen Avatar, I watched that and admit there’s a similarity, but eh… I wasn’t bothered by it. And I thought the criticism that was leveled at Valerian and its cast would have been better directed toward Avatar.
I think it is a mistake to consider this a three act plot. At its heart, is an interconnected series of stories. In other words, this sci-fi action adventure has as much in common with Love Actually (yes the 2003 romantic comedy) as it does with any space opera. The main difference is that Love Actually’s plots were at first independent of each other and then built some connectivity where Valerian is a sequence of stories which gives an expectation that it would be more orderly. Which is why I made the mistake myself of thinking this was a default three act plot.
What eventually gave it away for me was the size of the cast. Each medium has a general rule of thumb for how many characters it can have, before the audience starts getting confused. TV episodes have the lowest character count. Movies have slightly more. Books have more (usually 10 while Epic Fantasies can have more… like 15). Comic Books (!) can have the most between 20 and 25. If you are wondering where my source for all this is, it was a Librarian who was leading a writers work shop.
So how many characters does Valerian have? After skimming the full Cast List on IMBD I counted 16 that I considered important. And that leaves out a couple.
So Let’s take a look at the component stories that make up Valerian. This is what I came up with.
- The Creation of Alpha
- The Last Day of Planet Mul
- The Mission to Big Market
- The Security Detail Mission on Alpha
- Laureline’s Aquatic Adventure (in space) to Rescue Valerian
- Acquiring a Disguise to Rescue Laureline
- The Rescue of Laureline
- After the Last Day of Mul
- The Battle for the Heart of Alpha
Interwoven are a few subplots:
- Romantic relationship between Valerian and Laureline
- A growing “Dead Zone” in Alpha
- The Mystery of Planet Mul
If you include the subplots that is a total of 12 stories! Love Actually had 10.
The part where it feels like the wheels begin to fall off are stories 5, 6 and 7. This part contributes very little to building urgency for the dilemma placed before them: Rescuing the Commander of Alpha Station who has been abducted on their watch.
Every time I look for a way to tie this part of the movie to that I come up short. It gives us a much broader picture of the scope of Alpha Station, but more importantly it puts a lot more weight into how both the romantic story and the action story resolve.
Similar to the Fifth Element the story resolves with a plea centered around love. In the Fifth Element Leelu has everything she needs to save the world, but she is reluctant because she is afraid that humans will always wage war. This leaves Bruce Willis to plead with her on behalf of love.
In Valerian, Laureline is in possession of a small creature (last of its kind), that can resolve the turmoil of the Pearls (the natives of Mul). Valerian is opposed to handing it over. He observes that the creature is the property of the government both he and Laureline serve. He wants to do everything procedurally. Laureline makes a plea for love to sway his decision. And he says something to the fact that “Of course I love you. I would die for you.”
And it falls amazingly flat. Not because of the actor’s delivery, but because of all the meandering side stories. After Laureline risked her life and revived him he shrugged it off with out a thank you, saying he would do the same for her. Which, he does. But the point is he established that dying for one another was part of their jobs as agents, not an expression of love.
I have to think that this truly trips Valerian up. Dying for someone is the ultimate macho expression of love (and Valerian is definitely a macho character), but it is also a career hazard in their case. He had also established that the two are mutually exclusive.
None of that emotional turmoil would have existed without those extra side stories.
An Ethical Dilemma at that End
I’m just going to spend a little time mentioning that I love a good ethical delimma in my science fiction. I did not expect it in Valerian and it was wonderfully presented.
The Macho Hero
I’m probably going to stumble through this next section, but I think it is worth bringing up.
As I mentioned before, Valerian is a macho hero. Granted he doesn’t physically resemble Arnold, Stallone or any of the other action hero staples. But he does have the attitude and careless bravado.
It’s hard to root for him, because well. He’s kind of a jerk. He establishes that early on.
So how does one make an action hero movie in today’s environment? First, he is not the moral compass or voice of reason of the film. That role clearly belongs to Laureline.
But there are a couple of other ways in which the manly machoism is offset. First, Valerian has a woman inside of him. But not in a weird way. Yes there is a joke or two, but even those are offset.
Second, a character who is treated as a sex object (Rhianna’s character) is humanized.
But also the directorial decision by having Emporer Limai acted by and voiced by women. Correct. Two women (Aymeline Valade and Elizabeth Debicki) are credited with playing a pivotal male character.
This doesn’t soften Valerian’s manliness, but it does diminish the influence of his macho manfoolness (new made up word!) on the film to the point where it is not central to plot(s).
Things I missed the First Time
- Seat Belts!
- A couple of times in the first half of the movie, the phrase”Seat Belts” is uttered and they automatically secure the passengers to their seats. Later in the movie, there is a questionably sound submarine and the captain says, “Seat Belt” and the character does nothing (assuming they are automatic) and that character gets thrown!
- I don’t speak French.
- A lot of the cast is French. As Valerian walks through Paradise alley he is approached by someone speaking French. He responds with (you guessed it) I don’t speak French.
- “How much time do we have left”?
- Valerian asks this in the last of many many action sequences. We think he is asking the General, but the way it resolves I think he was communicating with someone else.
- The Council was in on the cover up the whole time.
- This one blew my mind. Most of the entire movie, we are lead to believe that situation on Alpha was driven by one character… who later claims to have been acting on the approved directions of the council.
- The walk on air gun that Valerian uses is actually a shield.
- In one chase sequence Valerian runs through a wall (seriously) and he starts to fall. He pulls out a pistol and fires a shot and a laser platform which he steps on briefly before jumping off to another. Who has a laser platform pistol? Turns out, that is not its intended function. Thats just Valerian being creative. In the ending action sequence a character has to get to a computer panel to rearrange wires in order to stop a bomb. But he (not Valerian) is taking enemy fire. With minimal time, he runs to the panel firing a laser pistol towards the enemy. It’s not laser fire, that he shoots. It is shields. The pistol has a setting for laser shields! Which is what Valerian used as stepping stones for like a second and a half in the movie.
- The converter as a leverage in negotiation
- The Commander of Alpha station intends to use the creature as leverage. Presumably, we give this to you and you go away. But the more I think about it, the intent was to gain leverage by threatening the creature’s existence.
I spent a lot of time writing about this movie, and a reader could easily mistake this as my all time favorite. (It is not). I enjoyed it. I hope there will be more movies like it (there probably won’t) and I think at the moment it is underrated. Here’s to hoping this becomes a cult classic.