Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Innovation over repetition in the movies (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets)

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Several earlier posts (cf. [1], [2], [3], and possibly others.) have dealt with themes like (over-)continuation of franchises; and I feel that much of the entertainment industry is caught in creative laziness and a greedful attempt to just squeeze as much money out the fame and popularity of existing works as possible.

That it can be done differently is proved by Luc Besson and his “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”*, which I finally got around to watching: Unlike e.g. the latest variations of the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” themes, he actually tries to do something new, bringing in fresh ideas and unusual takes, in a manner similar to what he did in “The Fifth Element” twenty years ago**. To boot, he does so in one of the most visually spectacular manners I have ever encountered. The whole movie appears to be driven by a wish to push the envelope as far as possible, e.g. with the “Big Market” or “Bubble” scenes.

*In all fairness, it is based on an older comic series, which technically makes it an example of another continuation/re-boot/medium change/whatnot. However, Besson’s intentions, going by reporting, are very different: Showing his own vision of a favorite childhood fiction—admiration and genuine interest rather than a wish for more money. (“The Fifth Element” is similar in this regard, except that it was described as originating in his own childhood creation/fantasies, rather than the original work of another.)

**These two movies have a lot in common and most of what I say about the one will apply, m.m., to the other. I mostly choose not to be explicit, to avoid cluttering. There are also some strong parallels with the two first “Star Wars” trilogies, like pushing the envelope, unbelievably impressive visuals (by the standards of the respective day), new weapons, …

Of course, the movie draws on the works and ideas of others (and/or independently comes up with ideas others have already used)—but not doing so in today’s world is nearly impossible. Here the question of execution and combination enters, and Besson sets news standards. Consider e.g. “Big Market”, a bazaar/society hidden from plain sight: Similar ideas are not uncommon in fiction, as e.g. with the “Troll Market” used in the “Trollhunters” and “Hell Boy” franchises—but combined with the concept of over-laying realities that only interact partially, and the execution that allows for great comedy and exciting action, we have something on a different level. Even so, there are a number of more simple ideas that I, personally, have never seen before, like the weigh-your-opponent-down gun used in “Big Market”.

Where others engage in unimaginative mass production, Besson sets new standards and has created what is the best sci-fi movie I have seen from this decade—far superior to e.g. the last “Star Wars” installment. This is how it should be done! I would rather have one movie like this every few years than a few generic continuations in one year.

Now, I am not saying that this movie has reached perfection. For instance, it is weak* in terms of “food for thought” (but that applies to almost all the block-busters in a similar genre; even if some more “artsy” sci-fi movies can be strong here). For instance, much of the overall plot is a typical variation of “world in danger; hero to the rescue; complications ensue” (again, the competition is rarely better; and the “complication” part is quite strong). For instance, the last half hour (or so) is considerably weaker than the preceding majority of the film, being less imaginative and more cartoonish than the rest—and the virtually immediate re-creation of the Pearl’s world, if on a smaller scale, reduces the impact of the previous losses on the viewers in an unfortunate manner.

*Among what is present, I note the ethical dilemma that led to the destruction of Mül, the situation and developments of the Pearls subsequent to that destruction, and several instances of having to weigh “the right thing” against orders (note the military setting) or personal loyalty vs. organizational loyalty. None of these, however, are given much real exposure, and the food-for-thought aspect is to some part neutralized through the fairly one-sided black-and-white takes on the issues. (For instance, even if we strongly disagree with the actions of Filitt, it still pays to try to understand what motivated him, and to contemplate whether we, in a similar situation, might have acted in the same manner.)

On the other hand, I am not certain that I share the common criticism of the cast: I agree that neither of the two leads put in extraordinary acting performances, but they fit the parts very well, have great on-screen chemistry, and contribute strongly to the overall effect. Chances are that a re-cast with more accomplished actors would have led to an inferior result; and I have a hard time even imagining the movie with different lead actors (just like e.g. the original “Star Wars”, but very much unlike “The Force Awakens”). Cara Delevingne is similar to several other Besson castings, notably Natalie Portman in “Leon”* and Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element”, in that the combination** of the character and the actress left me infatuated (which is comparatively rare with me). The rest of the cast is very mixed, but the characters of importance are mostly well played, if possibly a bit exaggerated.

*On the first watching, when I was just several years older than Portman’s character…

**Jovovich as Leeloo had me head over heels—but she has left me neutral or even slightly negative in the other movies I have seen her in. An interesting contrast is Olivia Hussey, the only other actress that has had that large an effect on me: She did it in at least two different works (“Romeo and Juliet” and “Ivanhoe”), and left me anything but cold in several others. (While comparatively unknown, she combined extraordinary beauty with amazing charm, beating even e.g. Audrey Hepburn in this combination.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2017 at 5:59 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] today, I re- watched “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, and found myself contemplating and meta-contemplating the Pearls’ change of life, the starting […]

  2. […] Excursion on changing franchises: The recurring reader might see my complaint of staleness as inconsistent with e.g. a text motivated by “iZombie” and its deterioration: would I not prefer a series that remained the same? To some degree, I do find myself reevaluating this stance, especially because my own book plans have come to involve considerable changes from book to book (within a potential book series). To some degree, the claims are compatible: the second season of “Westworld” failed to truly repeat the strengths of the first season (and did not add new strengths). Once it failed at that, the level of constancy or variation on the surface is less important: my original message is not that a franchise should have each installment be a carbon copy of the previous, but that it should play to its strengths. (I have also spoken positively about innovation in e.g. a text on “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.) […]

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