Valerian and the movie of a thousand problems

Luc Besson’s crowd funded blockbuster tries too much and fails at pretty much all of it

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It’s hard to keep a level head when reviewing films intended for children or families, or indeed any film that is targeted toward an audience of which I am no part. Yet despite being neither a child or a family I sat through the entirety of Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, a sprawling Sci-Fi epic from visionary director of Leon, The Fifth Element. The film follows the story of Valerian, yes that’s his first name, who is a nondescript Agent for some sort of Human Galactic agency. Valerian wears its influences on its sleeve, unfortunately the Star Wars movie it seemed to be replicating was The Phantom Menace.

Now it can be common to forgive a film for children for not being a perfect piece of cinema, but there were simply too many glaring faults in Valerian to pass off as unimportant. The film opens by vomiting exposition into your face and far from snappy dialogue that is heavy handed and obvious whilst still somehow remaining vague and confusing.

I have talked at length in my review of Kubo and the Two Strings about the importance of a real danger in kids films. It is my opinion that fantastical heroes must be genuinely threatened in order to have any sort of impetus. Valerian is thrown straight into the thick of it from the film’s start, by the end of the first action scene our protagonist has already fell down twenty stories, been chased by mobsters and security agents and jumped from an armour plated magic school bus to a spaceship and came out completely unharmed. The hero of our story is constantly being thrown into what could be the climax of another movie and coming out unscathed. It’s as if the filmmakers are so afraid that you’d get bored watching so they have to throw in another action set piece conceit. It is an overload of half baked heroic schemes and pay off without any of the set up. When your entire movie is a climax, none of it is.

The humour found in the film is massively low effort, if ever there was a movie to demonstrate that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit it is this. Laureline has one weapon in her arsenal and it is a brutally unfunny one two punch of an eye roll and a muttered “oh great!” Meanwhile Valerian has managed to weaponise smugness in such a way that it killed my enthusiasm for what I was hoping to be a fun film within five minutes of the movie starting. He has a collection of niche-gadgets that would make Adam West’s Batman blush, including a saliva activated spider bot designed to break people out of cocoons (not kidding) but the film fails to make light of these things. It’s goofy fun that takes itself seriously, it is the antithesis of Kingsmen, the James Bond Jr of cinema, it is Spy Kids for people who thought Spy Kids was too interesting and funny. The only actor who seems to realise what tone the film should be going for is Ethan Hawke who plays a sleazy pimp (in a film aimed at kids). The man overacts and cherishes his lines like he’s Oldman in The Fifth Element, adding the self aware campiness that the film is sorely lacking throughout, unfortunately he is only on screen for one scene, overshadowed by the introduction of the “surprisingly-okay-in-this” Rihanna’s character.

Being based off of a comic book series it is possible that the story of the film is a number of smaller comic adventures stitched together through a single narrative, explaining the disjointed feeling of the film and the endlessness of the adventure. This could work if the narrative connecting the separate parts of the film wasn’t just Avatar.

It is clear that there was a lot of heart put into this movie, there are incredibly detailed set pieces and worlds that are designed, and the camera holds on to plenty of shots that I’m sure are filled with easter eggs for comic readers but there is simply too much of it. Much like Ghost in the Shell the film makes too much of an effort to make each shot some sort of interesting that it fails to grasp the possibility that less could be more in some instances.

I try to avoid talking about gender issues in these reviews, but films that are aimed at children and teens should be under harsher scrutiny to produce more socially progressive messages due to the impressionable nature of their audience. The way in which Laureline’s character is used as a lazy golden chalice for our protagonist is insultingly outdated. In short, Valerian has to prove himself by saving the world in order to get Laureline to marry him, despite their non-existent chemistry, his arrogance in her presence, his inability to look at her as an equal despite her saving his life multiple times and her apparent indifference to him as a person. Laureline had the potential to be a headstrong character with her own motivations but instead simply became an extension of Valerian’s and a tool used to propel the story. However this could simply be traced back to poor acting. It is also worth noting that movie is based off the comic ‘Valerian and Laureline.’

The 3D effects were unnoticeable despite numerous space battle scenes and asteroid belts, it added no depth to an already shallow film. This is one of those rare movies that could have actually benefited from 3D but seemed to forget that it had the option to use it. It appears to me that this might signal the end of 3D cinema releases until cinema falls into another crisis in ten years time.

 

Recommendation

Small children who want some goofy alien designs may enjoy this movie, its action scenes are well shot enough to be clear and it’s not dizzyingly awful on a surface level. However if you notice how stupid the writing is, how bland the characters are, or have any sort of standards whatsoever you will quickly become annoyed by this film.

Valerian tries to be too much, it is the Star Wars/ Spy Kids blend that no one asked for draped over an Avatar chassis. It has heart and ideas but they’re lost in a sea of bad writing, Deus ex-Machina and kiddie friendly fluff.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is still goofy fun, it’s just a lot shallower

Isn’t nice to have a sequel that is just called 2? No faffing around with words like revengeance or requiem. It’s just the second instalment of a series, there’s still a galaxy to guard so they’re going to do it. Twice.

How do you follow up a wildly successful, critically acclaimed surprise hit? Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s wild card, a strange mish-mash of sci-fi and superhero tropes with an ensemble cast of oddities in a comedic world. It was a film that found a significant cohesion between the comedy and action, held together by performances and an incredible soundtrack. It stood on its own, as a film set in a faraway galaxy, it was free from the tie-ins of the Marvel cinematic universe. That meant it was able to bore its own path, set its own tone that needn’t adhere to previous Marvel fare. It was colourful, light hearted and other worldly in a way that Marvel films haven’t been since Iron Man.

The film, which I still maintain is the best Marvel movie to date, was always going to be a tough act to follow and Vol 2 has displayed the issues that face sequels to highly popular movies. The first half of the original followed the traditional Marvel route, with the first half dedicated to the establishing of the team, but instead of an origin story detailing how a person became a superhero, Guardians followed a group of superheroes forming a team, it was fresh and different to other franchise starters. Vol 2 faces the problem of having to come up with a first half to its story and this is where the issues begin.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has more of a Star Trek feel to it than a movie, its structure is more that of a TV show, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it makes the whole first half of the film feel limp and directionless. The real threat of the film is not revealed until over an hour in and at that point the film has been spinning its wheels, making jokes and reintroducing you to characters you never forgot about.

It’s enjoyable, I will never refuse it that, the jokes are funny and the characters are as likeable as ever. Though the humour is enjoyable in the way a Big Mac is, you know what to expect and you get it, but when you think about it, it’s hard not to taste how manufactured it all is. Baby Groot is an unashamedly obvious example of this. People who saw this teaser poster may have had their suspicions that the movie would shoe horn the little devil in as much as possible and compromise the final product. The first scene of the movie is a perfect example of this, a long CGI ridden, tracking shot of Groot dancing while everyone else fights in the background, it’s funny and cute for the first few seconds but drags on for minutes and adds no new layers to the joke. The film is giving people what they want and only what they want, adding nothing new to the universe in favour of playing it ‘safe.’

In a sense the film is a pandering hodgepodge of elements that made the first film great. Take Drax for example, Drax’s character was a great strength of the first movie. His deadpan delivery of his lines and slow discovery of what irony is was a great introduction to the character. He was a brooding and serious laughing stock. This contrast was what made him so fun to watch. In the return, he is nothing but a joke machine, all his lines are comical to the point where the contrast which made the character great has entirely dissipated.

The film as a whole, is treated as such. All the contrast is gone, it is filled with crowd-pleasing moments that Mary-Sue our characters into unbelievable territory. Any and all possible moments for character development are squashed by badly overwritten dialogue that smashes you over the head with its meaning. Subtext is missing and brought to the foreground, characters make each emotion they feel plainly obvious and then feel the need to say it again. This feels like a film that was heavily dumbed down to appeal to a larger audience, from the complete lack of subtlety, the abundance of the one-note Baby Groot and to the morals of the story which amount to nothing more than “we’re a family and a family sticks together” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 feels too much like teen fiction.

In addition to all this, the ending of the movie is a transparent attempt to force viewers to invest in a new group of characters that have no real impact on the story, just so that there is some anticipation for the latest MCU tie in, which stars these characters no one has heard about.

Recommendation

Everything that you loved about the original Guardians of the Galaxy is still there, its eighties vaporware aesthetic, its charming characters and fun action scenes. It’s just all a lot bolder and a lot more obvious, in traditional sequel fashion. And in traditional Marvel fashion the villains are either too overpowered or too underpowered to the point where you lose interest.

The film constantly compromises its misfit charm for what is a safe bet. It’s a sterilised version of what we had before and there is so much going on that moments are not given time to land. It is less removed from the trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the first but for the most part it does stand up on its own. For all intents and purposes it is a fun watch and all the actors involved easily so themselves justice, but expecting it to approach the first in terms of quality is just asking to be disappointed.