Last summer there were three movies I wanted to see in theaters: "Baby Driver," "Spider-Man: Homecoming," and "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." Of those, I saw only two—"Valerian" got left behind. After a lackluster run in the box office and ambivalent response from the critics, it didn't look like it was worth an $11 movie ticket. It seemed like a shame—the teaser had seemed promising with vibrant "Fifth Element"-style visuals imbued with an added sense of mystery by the Beatles song "Because." It wasn't a sequel, prequel, or spinoff. I was hoping it would be good enough to become its own series.
Unfortunately, the film barely broke even in its sales after costing about $200 million—it would have to turn a serious profit before studios would ever consider greenlighting a sequel. Now it's streaming on Prime. It doesn't look like we'll ever get a "Valerian and the City of a Thousand and One Planets."
This week I watched the film to see if it was as meh as the reviews said. Surprisingly, it… was. I'm glad I didn't see it in theaters. But to simply say the film was mediocre doesn't do it justice—"Valerian" definitely had potential. If there's one thing it delivers on from the trailers, it's the visuals. The world-building and costume design are spectacular, the CG is polished enough to (usually) avoid looking obnoxious, and the sci-fi style feels inventive and fresh. There's a particularly clever scene at the start involving a sting operation in a multi-dimensional marketplace. Forty minutes in or so I kept thinking, "I'm not bored yet… so what goes wrong?"
Everything goes wrong.
The film takes a hard right into "tell-don't-show" territory once Valerian and Laureline reach the City of A Thousand Planets. Here's a robot explaining the city. Here's an official explaining a problem. Here's a conference of characters explaining things. It doesn't help that the two leads don't seem to be having much fun together. Valerian looks bored even when he's proposing to his partner. The lack of character chemistry combined with long-winded exposition make the film drag through its second act.
The third act is just a rip-off of "Avatar." The unique world-building and storytelling possibilities of Valerian's universe dissolve into a ham-fisted message about not stealing pearls (unobtanium) from the Mül (Na'vi). Valerian (Jake) must stop the unhinged government official Filitt (Quaritch) before he commits genocide in the name of a ridiculous and self-serving philosophy. The narrative was derivative nine years ago and it is derivative today.
"Valerian" is an unintentional parable of the stigma in modern sci-fi: studio-enforced marketability. Its enormous budget, attractive leads, and spoon-fed plotline should have sold the movie, but didn't. The only entries left turning a profit in mainstream science fiction are "Star Wars" and… that's it. But as "Solo" showed us, the safety of the genre is getting stale. "Valerian" should have committed to its originality and quirkiness instead of falling back on tropes. But as it is, it just feels like diet "Avatar."
Also, there's a point where Laureline sees a butterfly and says, "pretty butterfly," like a complete dork and that bothers me.