Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian

Director Luc Besson’s movie Valerian has been on my watch list ever since it came out, and recently, I finally managed to see it on Netflix. Let’s have a look.

The plot

The movie starts with the International Space Station. We see it grow over time, as more and more nations join sections to it. Then aliens come, and finally the station becomes too big to stay in Earth’s orbit. It heads off into interstellar space, becoming Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets.

Centuries later, agents Valerian and Laureline of the United Human Federation are stationed there to preserve the interstellar peace. Valerian has a dream about a dying planet, Mül, on their way from Alpha to a mission. It turns out the dream is not just a dream; there’s something fishy about Mül and its demise. When Valerian and Laureline return to Alpha, the shit hits the fan before they can dig any deeper into the matter.

The romance between Valerian and Laureline is woven through this story, until it merges back into the plot at the climax.

The characters

Valerian — played by Dane deHaan — is a major in the United Human Federation. He’s full of swagger, and he has a history as a womanizer. He relentlessly pursues Laureline, his lower-ranked colleague. Granted, the movie came out a few months before the Me Too movement, but still. Did he have to be a boundary-crossing pig?

Laureline — played by Cara Delevingne — is a sergeant and Valerian’s partner. She waves off his advances, but she’s secretly in love with him.

The problem: the characters are too thin, and there is zero chemistry between them, just awkward banter. I don’t know if you can even blame the actors. The script isn’t stellar in this regard.

The bad guy — I’ll not spoil things — is doing evil because of… reasons. Not much to see there. This goes for most characters. There really isn’t any depth to any of them.

That probably wasn’t the aim of this movie though, the setting is.

A thousand planets

From the intro alone you can see Valerian is not about characters or plot. It’s about the setting. This movie shows you a series of exciting alien worlds. And there the movie delivers.

All the places Valerian and Laureline visit look great. Like the Fifth Element — a Luc Besson classic — it’s all about esthetics. The colors, lines, and camera angles have all been chosen to give each place a unique atmosphere.

This approach makes Valerian more of a thrill ride through science fiction landscapes than an engaging story. And if you approach it like that, it’s a great movie.

So, below another image, let’s discuss how this plot might have been salvaged. That will contain spoilers, of course.

Valerian2

The basic arc

Where the plot crashes is at the climax. Up to that point it’s been a fun ride, but at the climax the story of the Mül has to come together with the arcs of Valerian and Laureline. The plot should have pushed the characters to the breaking point when we get there, and the climax pushes them past that point, forcing them to confront the flaw that their arc is based on and overcome it.

Valerian is an arrogant womanizer who follows the rules and is infatuated with Laureline. The idea is that he chooses love over rules and saves the Mül. Laureline is probably supposed to be his foil, less duty-bound, but more passionate, and not interested in him at all. A rebel of sorts. Now, this is a bit of a cliché right there, but okay, let’s run with it.

How would those arc come together? Preferably, you’d want Valerian to choose between his duty and Laureline, and to do so in a way that would appear to cost him everything. Laureline should choose to tone down her disregard of rules, for the greater good.

To tweak the climax

The problem in the current movie is that this sort of happens, but it feels forced. Valerian, at the climactic moment where they have to help the Mül against the evil general, wants to follow the rules, but Laureline explains it’s really a choice between love and rules, and if he loves her he should… okay, stop there and screw that. Show, don’t tell, especially at the climax of a story. And this is a forced, false dichotomy. Also, it barely ties into the evil general’s cover-up of the destruction of the Mül homeworld.

Nope, bad writing. The better approach would have been to have Laureline impulsively put herself in mortal danger, with only Valerian able to save her, by abandoning his love of rules. And here the evil general comes in.

So, imagine the big bad general and Valerian and Laureline in a stand-off. She’s seen too much, and tells him she’ll shout it off the rooftops. General what’s-his-name tells Valerian she’s betrayed the UHF, that her actions would destroy mankind, and tells Valerian to shoot her or lose everything; his job, his wealth, the human race. Now, this has to be convincing, meaning the general has to be foreshadowed as capable, not as a traitorous bastard. Valerian still chooses to shoot the general, potentially sacrificing everything for his love of Laureline.

Still not perfect, but far more satisfying. And you’d have to craft a closing of Laureline’s arc somewhere in there as well, or change it altogether, but okay.

And my pet peeve

Of course, there’s on other scene that would need to change. Not for the plot, but just, for the betterment of mankind.

That scene where aliens kidnap Laureline and force her into a dress to be a snack for an alien king, forcing Valerian to find a shape-changing stripper to help… That scene should have had the roles reversed. Valerian kidnapped and put in a dress, and Laureline going to a stripper.

It would have been better; so much better.

Conclusion

This movie isn’t that horrible. It’s a thrill ride through pretty scenery, and if you approach it like that, it’s fun.

It’s not great, though, not by a long shot.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands