Fifth Element is a great pop culture movie, full of clever lines and startling characters. Luc Besson was said to have produced it in an attempt to create the atmosphere of the French comic book series Valérian et Laureline, which he believed could not be produced because of the expensive CGI it would demand. As often happens, those limitations produced a better work of art, with Fifth Element having more fully-developed characters and fewer but spectacular effects that served a more coherent story.
I heartily recommend everyone see Valerian, which is spectacularly entertaining despite its flaws. It certainly achieves the comic-book goals of fast action and imaginative storytelling. But you may need to hurry to see it in its full 3D and widescreen glory since the first days of boxoffice receipts in the US have been thin and so it is likely to be yanked quickly. This makes it another example of why Hollywood is placing almost all its bets on franchises and reboots: in a crowded marketplace, only pre-marketed properties can stand out amid the clutter of new entries. While it’s in a favorite genre of today’s first-run moviegoers, there are many more familiar comic book franchises and in the US only a few have ever heard of this one. With Marvel and DC putting out a movie a month now, there’s a limit to how much comic book material audiences will pay to see.
There are many excellent detailed reviews so I won’t go into depth here.
One missing element is maturity. Valerian and Laureline are 20-something, with Valerian looking especially young, perhaps 20. In selecting a 31-yo actor who looks youthful enough to pass for 20, Besson gave up the masculine authority of Fifth Element’s Bruce Willis, who managed to be strong while sensitive and engagingly goofy. This Valerian by comparison lacks a moral center, and having him engage in teenage-level romantic badinage to woo Laureline just cements his lack of maturity. It is suggested that he and Laureline have been working as a team for some time, and despite their youth they are said to be one of humanity’s best teams — how can it be that any question of romance remains? If you’re over 21 this romance is implausible, yet Besson places it at the center and spends a lot of screen time on it. Later in the resolution of the plot, Valerian intends to deny the wronged alien species their rightful property because Orders, but Laureline intervenes and persuades him to the more obviously moral choice because Love. This is kinda French but thoroughly silly.
The movie is also somewhat immune from PC criticism because of its French origin, so what might otherwise get called out by the usual thought police — the feminine but strong Laureline using her sexuality, the cishet romance, the whiteness of the leads, the shape-shifting entertainer played by Rihanna who stops the action for a show where she transforms into a dozen classic fetish roles, the alien species that are suspiciously like stereotypical African tribesmen from 1940s cinema — have so far escaped much social media and feminist criticism.
The plot revolves around a paradise planet inhabited by near-clones of Avatar’s blue aliens (in tune with nature and completely noble) before their planet is destroyed by the foul white humans and their aggression. At least it does not duplicate the plot of Dances with Wolves, as Avatar did, by having the hero live as one of them before defending them against rapacious humanity.
Despite its cartoonish aspects, Valerian is well worth watching, especially in 3D, so see it before it’s gone. The imagery is gorgeous and needs to be seen in the theater for full impact.
Extended HD trailer:
More on pop culture:
Star Trek Beyond: Teambuilding Exercise
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”
It seems to me Valerian may go the way of the Ghost in the Shell live-action movie. Producers gambled that American audiences were much more familiar with the property, than American audiences actually are. Also, while anime fans laud the original GitS as one of the bedrock films of the genre, the cultural penetration of “adult” anime may be more limited than many of us anime fans care to admit. And Valerian may suffer the same fate, despite being a visually spectacular film with lots of interesting potential.
Of course, a lot of this has to do with the routinely insane amounts of money spent on your “average” SF/F movie. I remember when Terminator 2 shocked the industry with it’s $100,000,000 budget, and everyone was waiting breathlessly to see if T2 would follow Heaven’s Gate down to overpriced, overreaching disgrace. Nowadays $100M per film is standard, which means to truly be considered an “in the black” film, it needs to bring home at least double the cost, or more, domestically.
Overseas marketing can take some of the pressure off. Battleship would have been a major industry disaster, except for the fact that it snuck over the line due to it’s strong overseas performance. So it’s not impossible for a domestic flop to actually make money in the final analysis.
Does Valerian promise to be a Battleship?
It’s very likely to do well overseas, where spectacle and action do well almost regardless of story and critical negativity. “Battleship” is a decent entertainment but failed to genuflect to elite sensibilities and so was attacked by our oikophobics. It should also do better in long term revenues, so I suspect it will make a bit of money eventually.
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