Friday, March 16, 2018

Stupid Movie Reviews: Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets

Welcome to Stupid Movie Reviews!  This is a new, uh, maybe bi-weekly segment on the blog.  This week, we’re looking at a rather enjoyable stupid movie,Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets.

Why Stupid Movies?
Because almost all pop culture is stupid and insulting, but not all of it is deliberately grim and gritty and overly self-serious while also gratuitously insulting its audience’s intelligence.  Really, there are a lot of stupid movies that are also a lot of fun.
As an example of the difference, contrast the classic 1980s Patrick Swayze vehicle Roadhouse with the early 00’s X-Men movie X3.  One of these is delightfully stupid and occasionally funny while the other is humorless, grimdark, and often just plain insulting.
But alas, not all stupid movies are fun.  Some are just stupid.  And here we are.
Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets
This is the kind of movie that, honestly, I don’t know how it got made.  I mean, I liked The Fifth Element as much as anybody, but that was a long time ago, and there’s not much else in Luc Besson’s filmography to indicate that giving him $150M+ to make a space opera would be a good investment.  Maybe the studio really liked Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy?  Personally, I think Lucy tips the scale a little too far in the wrong direction, becoming more grimdark than fun, especially in its worst pseudo-intellectual instants.  But what do I know?

Valerian reminded me a lot of my indie comic days.  It’s based on a French comic series--two specific graphic novels, really, Valerian and Lorelei andValerian & the City of a Thousand Planets--and while a lot of those European comics are great, they often come with a storytelling ethos that doesn’t immediately translate to the American audience.  Valerian shares that same storytelling DNA, which is why I find myself unsurprised that it didn’t connect with American filmgoers.  Structurally, we see this most clearly at the movie’s beginning, where there is a very long, seemingly pointless artsy prologue, followed by five solid minutes of decidedly artless expositionary dialogue delivered stonefaced by our heroes, Valerian and Lorelei.  It’s jarring to the point that I found myself thinking, “What the f…?”
But the dialogue is not the point.  Indeed, watching this movie is a little like reading an arc of Uncanny X-Men or Justice League written and drawn by Jim Lee.  The exercise exists solely to show off all those stunning visuals.  The plot is just there to give those visuals some semblance of narrative.  So really, the mystery isn’t in why Besson did it this way, it’s in why the studio thought this approach would be a good idea for mass market audiences.
It’s also weird that a $150M+ sci fi/action movie exists tonally somewhere between the 1966 TV Batman and Roger Moore’s 1970s-era James Bond.  But that’s very definitely where we find ourselves here, and it has to be deliberate.  I mean, Valerian isn’t quite campy in the same way that Moonraker isn’t quite campy, but it’s definitely not any more serious a movie than the very silliest installments of James Bond have been.  And again, that’s jarring when set against all those stunning visuals and the movie’s overall hippy-dippy, peacenik vibe.  Parts of this movie are almost smart, but then, the good guys are bikini-clad alien pacifists whose superpower is in the way their pets poop!  
How seriously can we possibly take this shit?
Anyway, I really enjoyed it, but like I said in the intro, at least part of that was because I felt like Besson let me in on the joke rather than playing it straight.  
It’s worth noting that Sergeant Lorelei has an obvious sexual harassment case against her boss Major Valerian should she ever choose to pursue it.  Honestly, I found that part of the movie more jarring than anything.  But again, it goes with the whole 70s-era James Bond vibe.  Which is to say that it’s never clear what Lorelei sees in Valerian besides that he’s a man and her boss, so of course she has to be in love with him.  But if you can get past that, and you don’t mind stupid, Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets might be worth your time.

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