Promotional poster for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

I saw Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets last night. I was aware going in that the film wasn’t doing terribly well at the box office, and yet it had a lot of studio resources behind it- apparently Valerian is the most expensive film in French cinema history, clocking in at an estimated USD$177 million (according to IMDB estimates). I did see a few posters up in Paris in July (not surprising given Valerian‘s French comic-book heritage), but the marketing for the film seems to have been pretty low-key for a film with that kind of budget.

I think I know why- because after seeing it, I don’t know quite who the target market is, other than “people who read the comic books”. And I dare suggest that outside Europe, that isn’t a very large audience, at least compared to the casual comic-book audience that would recognise Superman or Hulk.

(Main article includes some spoilers.)

Is it a kids’ movie? It is reasonably kid-friendly, despite the M rating in Australia. There is only one curse word, no nudity save for some ill-fitting swimsuits, and while there are fight sequences there is no gore. But at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it’s a relatively long film and could easily be tightened. Every sequence seems stretched an extra few seconds as if to show off the sets, costumes, and bright colours just that little bit longer. Indeed, Valerian is nothing if not colourful, and that’s a comment from someone who’s currently immersed in Splatoon 2.

Is it a Star Wars-style space heist? Perhaps. The action sequences are spectacular and the movie never resorts to you-can’t-see-what’s-going-on shaky-cam, but we don’t get the cast of characters that Star Wars gave us to help us get invested. As an aside, some sequences pay obvious homage to George Lucas’ work- the heroes’ vessel looking a bit Millenium Falcon-y, an escape via a trash chute- but as the comic book series pre-dates Star Wars by more than a decade, maybe it’s the other way around.

(Spoilers follow.)

There are entire sequences that probably don’t need to be there. The first few minutes establish the setting- Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets from the title- but then there is no reference thereafter. The city is just the backdrop rather than a character or plot element in its own right. The movie could take place anywhere- Deep Space Nine, for example, or a regular Earth city if you wanted to tone down the alien cultures a notch.

The title character is a military operative played by Dane DeHaan (The Cure For Wellness) and he’s… well, a jerk. (Valerian, that is, not Dane.) He spends most of the movie reading his lines like a Saturday Night Live comedian impersonating Keanu Reeves, and trying to convince his partner Laureline (Cara Delavingne, recently of Suicide Squad) to marry him. In return, she spends the same amount of time fending off his advances- although they are indeed an item? Apparently? Chalk this one up to “thing you might know if you’ve read the comic”.

Our heroes infiltrate a market that exists in another dimension and is only visible through goggles, in order to obtain the MacGuffin from a dodgy smuggler (voiced by John Goodman). The smuggler threatens to come after them, and is never seen again- possibly he is being saved for a possible sequel- but other than the visual look of the pan-dimensional Big Market, the whole sequence just gives us the MacGuffin and lets us move on.

The film then shows us the destruction of Mül, an idyllic planet full of oversaturated colour where everyone lives on the beach in swimsuits. The planet is destroyed after being caught in the crossfire in someone else’s war, and the indigenous Pearls are wiped out… or so it is believed. Meanwhile, the human military, led by Commander Obvious Antagonist (Clive Owen), is trying to investigate an expanding radioactive area within Alpha, and send our heroes to check it out.

Rihanna plays a character who assists our hero to disguise himself. She’s in the film long enough for her backstory to be established, for the hero to accomplish his goal, and for her to die. Other than the goal of ‘putting Rihanna in this movie’ the sequence achieves very little- the two main characters are together at the start of the sequence, and together at the end, and no other element of the plot changes- so there’s another ten minutes that could be cropped.

Unless you want to watch Rihanna pole-dance in CGI costumes, that is, and that may be an accurate summary of the whole film. It’s beautifully shot and I don’t regret spending the time watching it, but ultimately it’s unnecessary and does nothing to advance the story or help us understand the characters. It might feel I’m unfairly dumping on the film and I agree there’s a lot to like, but my overall impression was that it was unsatisfying. “It’s good, BUT, dot dot dot…”