Imagine going on to the movies. You pick a movie made by a director with a good track record in science fiction movies. After sitting through the previews, it is finally time to start the movie. Now imagine the disappointment you feel after the ten minutes of hopeful build up is immediately extinguished.

That is what happened with VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, directed by Luc Besson. Yes, the same creative mind behind THE FIFTH ELEMENT is also responsible for this movie. While VALERIAN had amazing visuals, it wasn’t enough to distract from the lack of chemistry between the two leads.

The Only Pro: The Visuals

VALERIAN starts off with a montage showing how the International Space Station became Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets. Different alien species came to Earth over time and established colonies on Alpha through interconnecting ships. Each new encounter brought humanity in contact with new alien species, each stranger than the last.

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Fast forward to the 28th century, Alpha has grown to the size of a small planet and can no longer safely revolve around the Earth. Alpha then sails off into space to establish itself as a cultural hub at the center of the universe.

Valerian

The next scene opens up to a beautiful beach-like planet with a primitive humanoid race gathering gems at the shore. The entire aesthetic, even the structure of their homes, looked like someone took a unicorn and put it in a blender with glitter. What was even stranger was one of the lifeforms that would be crucial to the plot: a creature that looked like a cross between a hedgehog and a porcupine called a converter. It can replicate anything it eats by defecating copious amounts of it, including jewelry. The humanoid race harvested pearls containing nature’s energy to feed it to the converter. The converter would then, in turn, offer the pearls to the planet.

Valerian

This harmonious ritual is interrupted as the breathtaking scenery is replaced with an apocalyptic landscape as ships from Alpha begin crashing down on the planet. The humanoids take shelter in a nearby ship and look on in horror as the princess of their planet perishes in a nuclear blast. She releases a pulse of energy that reverberates throughout the cosmos and wakes up our protagonist.

The Disappointing Aspects of Valerian

We’re introduced to our protagonists as they exchange awkward flirting on a simulated beach on Alpha. The first disappointment is the realization that the movie is named after the bland protagonist, Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan.

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He is a Major on Alpha, partnered with Seargent Laureline, played by the equally bland Cara Delevingne. The anticlimax of the movie being named after the generic white protagonist sets up for two more hours of disappointment.

Two Hours of Sexual Harassment

From the very beginning of the movie, it has been established that Valerian has feelings for Laureline. Laureline doesn’t reciprocate because he’s been known to be a womanizer to the point of having an entire databank of all the women he’s slept with. The movie’s attempt at romance is muddled by the fact that the two actors lack any chemistry whatsoever.

The movie might have had one more positive trait if Laureline spurned Valerian throughout the film. Unfortunately, underneath the eye rolls that Cara Delevingne considers acting, there are some occasional smirks. This lets the audience know that she’s enamored with Valerian, and she tells him to change his ways before she can take him seriously.

Valerian
Over there! It’s character development!

Valerian’s constant flirting can also be considered harassment since he’s Laureline’s superior in a government job and often flirts with her during missions. Despite Valerian not having any significant character development, she still falls for him. That’s the magic of hetero-normative plots. Not even logic and consent can stop the white male train.

Valerian is set up as a selfish character, incapable of being selfless. From a narrative standpoint, characters like him would get their “hero moment” by sacrificing themselves for the greater good to advance the plot. His insufferable nature also just makes you want him to die out of sheer satisfaction. None of which happened. Valerian’s only “selfless” act that he promised Laureline was to delete his databank of women to prove that he’s changed.

A Sprinkle of Diversity

The marketing campaign for VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS always featured Rihanna on the posters and commercials. Fans of Rihanna would then be wondering where exactly she appears in the film and for how long. The answer is deep in the middle of the film for a grand total of ten minutes. She makes her cameo as a shapeshifting alien called a Glampod named Bubble.

Bubble worked as a burlesque dancer and possible escort/sex slave in the forbidden sectors of Alpha. I never thought I’d say this, but Rihanna was the best part of the movie. Her dance routine was visually appealing and utilized creative uses of Bubble’s shapeshifting abilities to show off a variety of outfits and dance styles.

Disposable Sex Worker Trope

The rest of Rihanna’s role was providing voiceover for Bubble’s natural form, which looked like a giant jellyfish.

Valerian

Her ten minutes of dialogue ended after infiltrating hostile alien territory, resulting in Bubble magically being fatally injured during battle. I say magically because one minute everything is fine when our heroes escape, then next minute, Bubble is dying from a fatal wound. Her death had zero impact nor did it make any sense given how it was established that Bubble was immune to melee weapons.

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She also spent her dying breaths encouraging Valerian to pursue Laureline. Bubble’s death was used as a catalyst for Valerian to improve as a person so no one else has to die for his reckless ways. It might have worked if he didn’t stay exactly the same throughout the rest of the film. Bubble’s death fits in the “Disposable Sex Worker Trope” where sex workers are killed throughout fiction for no reason other than character development for the protagonists.

Going Against Established Character Traits

Throughout the movie, Valerian was established as a maverick who goes off the books to get the job done. He would even go against his superiors if he felt it was the right thing to do. It was revealed that the planet destroyed at the beginning was caused, and covered up, by their superior, during a war. The last arc of the movie was dedicated to bringing him to justice.

Valerian and Laureline also had to protect the last converter in the universe (the pearl defecating hamster creature) as part of their initial mission. His superior wanted the converter to cover for his own error while the survivors of Mul (the destroyed planet) needed it to restore their home. When everything was resolved, and it was time to make amends, Valerian refused to hand over the converter since it was “government property,” saying he’s a soldier “who plays by the rules.”

This is a character that violates workplace conduct and destroys government property. He even jeopardized ecosystems on Alpha while pursuing a target. All of a sudden he cares about the rules? Especially since he just arrested his superior for committing genocide?

Naturally, this was the perfect time for Laureline to give a nonsensical speech about the meaning of true love and convince Valerian to give up the converter.

We Need To Do Better

I’m not sure who keeps telling Cara Delevine that she can act, but we need to stop thinking that one pretty face and visuals can make a movie passable. VALERIAN felt like an attempt to recapture the essence of THE FIFTH ELEMENT by throwing together imagery from sci-fi shows and video games, and it didn’t mix well.

VALERIAN had plenty of people of color in the fringes of the background. Any one of them could’ve been protagonists in the film. Valerian and Laureline are just two more bland white protagonists in a genre already oversaturated with them.

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