Filling the Well

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


I know some of you are eagerly awaiting what I have to say about this film. I’ve been really looking forward to it, since 1) I loved The Fifth Element and have wanted Luc Besson to return to the genre, and 2) Gonzo space opera is one of my favorite things.

It’s getting slammed in reviews, which doesn’t surprise me. Nobody liked The Fifth Element, either. I suspect they didn’t know what they were looking at and weren’t willing to learn. I wondered if Valerian was going to be the same.

So what’s the verdict?  Well.  What’s good in it is really really good. What’s bad is pretty terrible.  But there’s more good than bad. If you’re a fan of big gonzo science fiction — and especially if you want to support SF that isn’t sequels or remakes or reboots — I think this is worth seeing.

Here’s what I liked and what I didn’t:

This may be the closest we ever get to an adaptation of an Iain M. Banks novel. It’s quite Banksian, and I liked that. (In fact, I’m pretending the ship’s name, Alex, is actually short for Why Do I Even Listen To You People?)  It’s a huge world with a lot going on that is presented as being everyday and ordinary.  There’s a big sequence involving a tourist market that exists in another dimension, requiring operating on two different levels of reality, and the film makes it work and it’s super interesting. Stuff like that! Yes!

There’s a level at which this is a story of the heroism of ethical bureaucrats, and I liked that too.  The general who’s just trying to figure out what the hell is going on and who is lying to him and why, and then he fixes everything, is my favorite character in the whole thing. In most movies, he’d have been shot by the villain in act two, but not here.

The worst:  the two main characters are totally unconvincing and epically uninteresting. They’re stock characters, standard bantering action heroes, which would have been okay with engaging and charismatic actors playing them.  But these are woefully, dreadfully miscast.  They’re clearly attempting deadpan banter and it just comes off flat.  Both of them look way too young, especially when they’re supposed to be arguing authoratatively with Clive Owen, who is phoning it in and still acting circles around them.  I simply didn’t believe they were amazing galactic secret agents, and that was a huge problem.  The relationship between them is even more problematic, of the “If the guy harasses his beautiful coworker enough, eventually she’ll say yes!” variety.  I find myself recasting these two in my mind:  right now I’m on 1990 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, which I sort of think would have been amazing.

But back to the good, the first five minutes or so are some of my favorite five minutes I’ve ever seen in an SF movie. It’s a compressed history of the ISS from now to five hundred years in the future as it becomes a meeting place for different nationalities, and then for aliens, and it expands and expands right out of Earth orbit to become a galactic center for trade and diplomacy. It’s freaking gorgeous and so juicy and science fictional and beautiful and hopeful and I loved it.

I just wish, so much, that they’d gotten other actors for the leads. Actors with the charisma to match the setting. Alas.