The Culture Tsar has been looking forward to seeing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets since seeing the trailer for it during the Super Bowl. Although the early critical buzz wasn’t particularly good, this movie wasn’t exactly promising to be a Best Picture contender, so the Culture Tsar didn’t put too much stock in the prerelease chatter.
Okay, enough with the preamble and on to the main question: Is the movie any good?
Answer: It’s fine.
Not a resounding endorsement, to be sure, but it’s certainly not a bad movie. The pacing drags at times, the writing can be a bit cringeworthy at times, and none of the performances are particularly good (although Ethan Hawke’s sleazy cabaret show proprietor is pretty fun). On the other hand, it looks beautiful. The effects and production design are spectacular and probably worth seeing on the big screen. There are a few memorable features, like the comic relief trio of misfit aliens who peddle information and Clive Owen’s cyborg bodyguards, and some imaginative setpieces like the multidimensional marketplace. On the whole, though, this is a movie that bets everything on spectacle, on astounding audiences with something they’ve never seen before.
The problem, of course, is that we have seen most of this before.
Valerian suffers dreadfully from what The Culture Tsar refers to as the “John Carter Problem.” When the film John Carter came out in 2012, many critics and viewers criticized it for not really offering anything new to the sci-fi adventure genre. It felt derivative and a bit uninspired. The problem, of course, had to do with the source material itself. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series had a major influence on generations of writers, but the stories themselves are over one hundred years old. The most interesting aspects of those stories have been absorbed and recycled by subsequent works so many times that most audiences can’t identify the line of transmission anymore. People watched John Carter and dismissed it was a Star Wars rip-off not realizing that the original Star Wars took a lot of its cues from the John Carter books.
Now, none of this excuses the fact that John Carter just isn’t that great of a movie (although The Culture Tsar has a soft spot for it). The problem is the filmmakers relied on the strength of the property and sheer spectacle to turn an otherwise lackluster story with bland characters into something memorable. But audiences weren’t impressed by the spectacle because they felt like they’d seen it before. John Carter might have been able to get away with this if audiences were more familiar with the property. Fans will turn out for mediocre adaptations of their favorite book series provided the movies are reasonably competent. But while John Carter more than meets this competency threshold, there just aren’t that many hardcore fans of the series dying to see it on the big screen.
Which brings us back to Valerian.
The film is based upon a French comic series called Valerian and Laureline, which ran from 1967 to 2010 and had a massive influence on a generation of European sci-fi artists and writers. Unfortunately, many of them have already incorporated much of what they loved into their own work. Even the film’s director, Luc Besson, has done this, with many aspects of the comic appearing in his mid-90s sci-fi cult classic The Fifth Element. The original Star Wars almost certainly took some inspiration from the artwork of Valerian and Laureline. But this wide-ranging influence also means that audiences will automatically feel like they’ve seen everything Valerian has to offer. Even worse, for all its influence, Valerian and Laureline isn’t widely known outside of France. The Culture Tsar considers himself a massive sci-fi and fantasy nerd and he’d never heard of the property before seeing the trailer for the first time earlier this year. In other words, there’s no readymade audience waiting for this movie in the US like there would be for even a “second string” superhero movie like Ant-Man.
All that aside, Valerian could have been a great success. It could have followed the example of Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a little known comic sci-fi property that wisely emphasized character over spectacle. Instead, it went a more predictable and conventional route of subordinating the characters and interpersonal conflict to the spectacle of the source material. While Valerian is fun enough, it’s also forgettable due to its bland characters and a predictable, “by the numbers” story.
Maybe The Culture Tsar would have liked it more if he’d read Valerian and Laureline, but that’s the crux of the “John Carter Problem”. If you have to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the movie, you’re probably doing something wrong.