A Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Wrong Turns

Photo by K. Kitts of her original Valerian no. 6 L’Ambassadeur des Ombres.

Warning:  There be spoilers unless you are a Valerian and Laureline fan and already know the story.

The movie more or less uses the plot of the sixth graphic novel from the series titled Ambassador of the Shadows with an cameo of the natives from Avatar. The title of this movie is lifted from the second novel likely because it sounded bigger.

We start off in the eponymous City, which grows from our own space station that is eventually moved out into the vastness of space. Although centuries later, it’s still only 700 millions miles away, which would barely get it past Jupiter. The opener works except I found the David Bowie song distracting.

We then cut to the planet Mül where plot-wise we spend far too long. From their lanky looks the aliens are kissing cousins to the Na’vi. In a confused scene where spaceships appear to fall from another dimension instead of orbit, their environment is destroyed.

We finally meet our heroes, vacationing in their ship’s holodeck. They–and we–are off to a bad start with Valerian bent on getting into Laureline’s pants. Absent is the tender friendship between the novel’s characters, replaced by Desperately Seeking Hormones, enough so that Valerian laughably asks for Laureline’s hand. Story-wise, what we should see instead is her decisive moral compass in relief to his wishy-washy justifications about duty, but that interesting tension from the novel barely gets a nod in the movie.

Moving to the first onscreen mission, our heroes retrieve an animal with replicating powers. The novel’s Grumpy Converter has been turned mild-mannered for the film. Tagging along through the marketplace is the most entertaining and original sequence of the movie. At this point, the movie begins to follow the novel’s plot and that is an excellent choice.

The film’s visuals are indeed impressive, although they still fall short in comparison to the novel. The City itself represents one of the film’s problems with a design that’s too confusing. Instead of pearls on a string, all the setting run together: the virtual market, the underwater sequence, and the Flashdance-style titty bar. Other design elements simply don’t make any sense: the too-busy screens the humans operate, and the vest-over-a-bikini Laureline wears for no fathomable reason. The Suffuss, Zuur, and Marmakas are all quite satisfactory, but the Shingouz are not. Their wheeler-dealer talk is shifted to their facial expressions, so the why-are-you-doing-this-to-oh-poor-me shtick is now lost.

The novel’s politics are augmented with Earth’s attempt to sweep the Mül disaster, for which the Earth military is responsible, under the rug. This cheap trick feels like the addition of Soylent Green to the movie made from Harrison’s novel: a mcguffin that detracts from the power of the original message.

Laureline has the feistiness of Leia, but much like the princess, too little of that sass gets used onscreen. Whereas the novel’s Laureline truly drives the story, and a clueless Valerian tries to catch up, the movie switches Laureline’s best deeds to Valerian. And to really undercut the novel, Valerian ends up saving his partner’s bacon more than once, and critically when she’s about to become—yes, wait for it— a helpless victim! If the writer-director thought audiences were not ready for the real Laureline forty years after Leia, perhaps he should’ve waited a couple more years and seen Wonder Woman first.

Overall, the casting is not at fault as much as the writing is. Our two heroes in particular sound more like bored and cynical twenty-somethings than the youthful but competent agents they are in the novels. In the movie, Valerian has the reputation of being more oversexed than James Bond, which undercuts his being a functional adult. Laureline’s in movie response of he’s-a-philandering-jerk-but-I-can-change-him is even worse.

Adding insult to injury, the film uses Laureline’s aforementioned moral compass just once to convince Valerian to return the converter to its rightful owners. This makes him good enough for her to kiss in the final scene, which made me laugh out loud in the theater.

Given the film’s lackluster box office opening against its formidable budget, we are pretty much guaranteed never to have a sequel. The fans of the graphic novel series must be breathing a long sigh of relief.

About the useless 3D: To be fair, there were far fewer dark settings in Avatar. However that movie’s 3D never got in the way, whereas Valerian’s forced my eyes to refocus in every space scene throwing me out of the story.

Given a free ticket, I might see it again in IMAX, even regular, but never again in 3D.

With much misgivings,

Zathras — Girl Cooties anonymous reviewer

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