I finally saw the movie last night. In 3D. I caught it at the last possible minute, just before every other theater in the tri-state area drops it to make more room for the limited run of “The Lion King Sing-Along” or something.
The more Franco-Belgian comics I read, the more I realize there are definite cultural differences in storytelling styles between North America and Europe. The European comics feature lead characters who are far more laid back than their American counterparts. The storytelling structure often emphasizes the second act over the third. The endings feel abrupt to those weened on a lifetime of North American stories.
I’m sure there’s more, but those are the first aspects that jump to mind that I’ve seen this year.
“Valerian” is a part of that cultural difference. If you’re at all familiar with the comic series, you’ll feel right at home with the movie. It has similar proportions of character-based versus environment-based storytelling. If you’re looking for a Hollywood blockbuster, you’ll still get about 80% of the way there.
So I’m stuck with thinking the failure of this movie commercially has more to do with people’s pre-conceived notions about the film than what is actually up there on the screen.
The Source Material
The movie is faithful to the feeling of the original material. I think it’s a solid modern crafting of the 50 year history of the franchise. (As I’ve quipped recently: To everyone wondering why they’re new comic hasn’t been optioned into a movie yet, keep in mind that Valerian only got its movie 50 years after its debut.)
Some things move a little faster, perhaps. The relationship between Valerian and Laureline feels a little more forced to the front of the movie, but that’s how movies work. They think they need that romantic element to get a certain quadrant of movie-goers. Thankfully, the whole “marriage” subplot was handled beautifully by Luc Besson’s script. Right to the very end, it felt in character for Laureline to act the way she did. It wasn’t forced into place to make a happy ending as quickly as possible, or even at all.
Heck, this movie should be a feminist anthem, if just for that plot. I suspect some might bristle at the skirted uniform she wears for about two scenes early on, but she changes into the armor before going off on a mission.
Other things move at a similar speed to the comics, and that might be a problem.
The movie is over two hours long. Most proposed franchise tentpole movies like this are that long, but they could have easily brought this thing down to 2 hours with a few edits. It would have meant a couple characters from the original book didn’t appear in the movie, but those plot points could have been covered in 15 seconds of alternate dialogue, instead.
That said, part of the thrill of the “Valerian and Laureline” comics is that Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres do take a leisurely pace to their stories. They like to explore and show wondrous and imaginative worlds and species. Part of the thrill of reading these albums has been in seeing the crazy ideas that get thrown on the page.
This movie is a visual spectacular. It’s properly lined up to mirror that part of the comic. In the world of popular movies, this gets it lumped into other the same category with movies that are purely style over substance and visuals over plot. I don’t think Valerian is either of those. There is a plot here, and it holds up a lot of trips down side roads along the way.
This, I think, is a large part of the reason why the French critical reaction to the movie has been so much better than the North American reaction. The French know the source material and know how it works. They like that the movie hews more closely to the source than the standard cookie cutter formulas and pacing we’ve come to expect from Hollywood films.
How Much Material Does It Borrow?
The movie borrows a bunch of material from “The Ambassador of the Shadows,” which everyone knew going in. I hadn’t read the book in a few months, but then flipped through it this morning again. There is, indeed, a lot of bits and pieces from the comic in the movie.
There are literally shots lifted from Jean-Claude Mezieres’ art dropped into the film. And I don’t think it distracts from the movie in the least.
Some quick examples:
It was really cool seeing that stuff up on the screen, even when the Shingouz are turned into Donald Duck’s nephews. I still love those guys.
If there’s one thing all the critics and many viewers complained about with the movie, it was the casting of the two leads. True, they’re not the strongest actors and their chemistry is often mixed. I don’t think they’re bad. I think they’re inconsistent. Each of them have moments where they suddenly come alive and get lost in their moments, but both also have quieter moments where it feels like they’re trying to get through lines of scripts before the union crew needs to break for lunch.
My hunch from the trailers came true, I think. Laureline was a more likable and believable character. She maintained strong bits of that feminist sci-fi character we kept reading about this summer on the internet. She had some great one-liners. She was her own person and wasn’t afraid to snap back at those who wronged her. She’s very similar to the character in the comics, right down to taking a moment during the story to dress up in some civilian clothes at least once.
Valerian looks lost a little bit too much of the time. He has times where the script is strong enough to give him a strong moment. And when he’s in those lulls between moments, the blank eyes come out and the lack of energy is apparent. Taken as a whole, it results in a much more laid back character than Valerian actually is.
I wonder how much of that inconsistency comes from the script. Did it need to be even punchier?
Let Me Light a Fuse Here
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a better movie than “Star Wars: A New Hope.” And all of the prequels. And “Return of the Jedi,” too.
Take all the nostalgia out of it, and go watch “Star Wars” again. Don’t tell me that Mark Hamill was a master thespian in that movie. Don’t you dare tell me that “Whiny Luke” is any better an actor than Dane DeHaan.
It’s not quite fair to compare special effects from the 1970s to the special effects of today, but your kids will. And they’ll much prefer Valerian.
Valerian also has more aliens with more interesting personalities and skill sets. It also has more different planets, though they do seem mostly to be one climate per planet, still. (There’s the desert planet people shop on, the beach planet Mul, etc.)
And Point Central — or “Alpha,” as it’s called in the movie — is far more interesting than The Death Star.
“Valerian” doesn’t have cute droids. It has killer robots.
“Valerian” takes its time going down side roads, yes, but I think it has a more cohesive, better told story than “Star Wars,” with an ending that doesn’t require a character to suddenly realize powers out of left field to defeat an enemy that’s obviously incapable of defending itself. And there’s no boring stretches that you’ll want to fast forward through while a character whines about who they are or what kind of powers they might have.
OK, John Williams’ soundtrack is far superior, but I liked Valerian’s pulse-pounding brassy sound during the action sequences. (There’s one spot where you can say Star Wars influenced Valerian.)
The Critics Were Wrong
That’s nothing new. But this movie deserves a far higher Rotten Tomato score for what it is.
It’s a fun summer popcorn action sci-fi fantasy visual spectacular. It achieves that, and it deserves better than it got here in the States.
If you’re at all familiar with the comics, I think you’ll see a lot to nod your head at in the theater and feel smugly superior to everyone else who doesn’t recognize where these things came from. 😉