This article acts as both my box office report about and film review of Valerian.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a failure, but is it a noble one whose ambition should be commended and future status as a cult classic celebrated? Or just a failure-failure, a bad movie made my people who horribly misread the market for sci-fi these days?
I’ll share my thoughts on it in a second. First, let’s do the numbers:
Financially, Valerian cost $180 million to make, $60 million to market, and it’s only made $30 million domestically in its first 10 days. Not good. It’s not exactly killing it at the foreign box office yet either. There remains the potential for redemption in China, where Valerian opens at the end of August, a week before Dunkirk and two weeks before Spider-Man: Homecoming, but China has not been its usual reliable savior of underperforming movies this year. So, a Warcraft-esque turnaround via the Middle Kingdom is possible, but not guaranteed.
Critically, Valerian has been ripped as an undisciplined mess crippled by a dreadful script and even more dreadful acting from two woefully miscast leads (Dane DeHaan and Care Delevingne). Even some of the film’s defenders concede that, yeah, Dane and Cara are all kinds of awful as a wannabe-Han Solo who sounds more like a bargain basement Keanu Reeves and his expressionless, emotionless love interest/partner played by a model who is in desperate need of acting classes. As a result, Valerian has been certified Rotten (52% score), earned a CinemaScore (B-) on par with Tom Cruise’s beleaguered The Mummy and is hanging out with similarly reviled movies like King Arthur and Snatched on MetaCritic.
This was all so predictable. As Wired argued in response to the release of Valerian’s first trailer, “Despite the trailer’s insistence that the movie is ‘based on the groundbreaking graphic novel that inspired a generation,’ odds are you’ve never heard of the Valerian and Laureline series of French bandes dessinées. In other words, an epic, mega-budget sci-fi movie that’s based on a not-widely-recognizable intellectual property. John Carter much? […] Audiences see this trailer, this thing that is actually the progenitor of some iconic strains of cinema sci-fi, and they think eh, looks kinda derivative.”
John Carter’s box office failure was so epic someone wrote an entire book about it, painting it as the ultimate cautionary tale in an era of filmmaking overrun by clueless suits obsessed with IP – good IP, bad IP, just anything that might theoretically have a built-in audience.
Valerian is not John Carter, though.
Okay. It kind of is for all the reasons Wired said. But this wasn’t born out of a studio filmmaking formula which sometimes mistakes “old” with “well-known and beloved” This was born out of a maverick director-producer, Luc Besson, who has loved the source material since he was 8-years-old, and was actually told by the comic book’s co-creator, Jean-Claude Meziere, 20 years ago that he should be the one to make the inevitable Valerian movie.
Besson wanted to, but he didn’t have the capital to do so, even after his Valerian and Laureline-inspired sci-fi opus The Fifth Element tripled its budget in worldwide gross and ended 1997 as the 9th-highest grossing film of the year. The effects required to make Valerian simply didn’t exist yet back then, though, not when the story roughly involves two humans interacting with thousands of aliens. In fact, Besson wasn’t convinced the comics could ever make it to screen and instead devoted his time to building up his EuropaCorp studio through successful films like Lucy and the Transporter and Taken franchises.
Then he visited the set of Avatar and got schooled by James Cameron on the wave of the future in motion-capture technology, and Valerian suddenly seemed doable.
Flash to around 6 years later.
Besson set up shop at a hotel nearby the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Film buyers from all over the world were invited to view his Valerian concept art, read his script and hear his pitch for the next big sci-fi film franchise, one which could draw from the 22 different Valerian and Laureline comic books. As Besson told TotalFilm, “It was a room with 200 people. And I present the film, I show the drawings. They have a special room to read the script with a guard! And if the script was not good and the drawings were not good, no one would buy anything […] It’s the moment of truth. If the people say, ‘Luc, we like you, but we’re not so sure,’ then I go back to work.”
I love stories like this. It reminds of the old way of doing things in Hollywood because this is the how film financing used to work. It’s a system prime for manipulation by snake-oil salesman and hacks who can hook investors with eye-popping concept art and poster mock-ups despite not actually having a script or even a basic story idea yet (a common trick of the Cannon Films group in the 80s). However, it’s also how many well-known older films got their funding, i.e., by pre-selling distribution rights to various European markets, and it’s how Besson has operated for years.
The relationships he’s built up with investors clearly paid off. By the end of his first day in Cannes, he had secured two-thirds of Valerian‘s budget. By day six, 90% of the world’s territories had bought in. They all helped Besson make the most expensive independent film of all time, and easily the most expensive French movie. Now they’re the ones sweating the box office.
According to THR, “Besson has maintained that presales to 120 countries largely paid for his EuropaCorp company’s portion of the spend on the movie, leaving the studio responsible for only 10 percent of the total $180 million budget.” The actual money came from all over the place, e.g., various French, German, Belgium and Chinese banks and telecom companies looking to get into film financing, Valerian’s U.S. distributor STX, the luxury car company Lexus, etc. If the film flops in China and elsewhere outside of North America they’re all kind of screwed, but Besson’s EuropaCorp might just weather the storm.
Besson knew the risks going in. After his experience with The Fifth Element, which made nearly 70% of its money overseas, he was nervous American audiences just wouldn’t “get it.” As he told IndieWire, “I can feel the resistance when it comes to the American audience. I can feel it, I’m not blind. ‘Oh, that’s not a Marvel? Oh, [Delevingne]’s not totally an actress yet? What is Rihanna doing there and who’s this weirdo French guy?’ I can feel all that.”
Plus, he repeatedly expressed concern over the potential for the sheer number of big sci-fi releases this year – Ghost in the Shell, Alien: Covenant, Guardians 2, Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: The Last Jedi – to wear audiences down and harden them to seeing yet another new sci-fi movie.
Yet for approximately its first 10 minutes Valerian truly is unlike anything else we’ve seen this year or in any year. Besson reportedly penned a 70-page backstory for the history of Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets which is really just a space station consisting of 12 million inhabitants and 8,000 different species all living in separate and distinct districts. This backstory is presented to us in wonderfully economic fashion via an optimistic montage charting an evolution of space exploration which begins with the real-life 1975 Apollo-Soyuz meetup between Soviet and American astronauts, an imagined similar meeting between Chinese and Americans in space in 2020, then similar bridge-building moments between other nations before building to similar encounters between humans and a parade of exotic aliens. Each new lifeform joins us on the steadily growing Alpha space station, which grows so large from 1972 to 2740 that it has to be released from Earth’s orbit and set adrift in space.
Untold millions were clearly spent here on creature design, special effects and casting of actors who never re-appear in the film. Others might have communicated all of this us via a text crawl or clunky expository dialogue. Instead, Besson opens with an inherently hopeful message of future peace and bliss, instantly sucking us into this universe and setting us up for the following viewpoint he articulated to IndieWire, “Let’s be a little naive and let’s dream. Let’s say, ‘Yeah, in the future everybody will shake hands and we will smile at each other and the foreign guy will be an alien willing to share knowledge.”
Then comes the most purely Avatar -like sequence of the film, dropping us into an Oceanside paradise occupied by Navi-esque mo-capped aliens who are in complete harmony with nature and barely need any dialogue for us to understand their actions. A teen girl and teen boy awkwardly flirting is the same in any language as is the tragedy of a parent losing their child too soon, as happens when mysterious ships crash on the planet and cause widespread destruction. We see as the princess of this little tribe is caught on the wrong side of a protective shelter, expressing a tearful goodbye to her father through the glass window (shades of Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston in Godzilla) and giving herself up to her rueful fate.
It is a powerhouse bit of filmmaking, one which demands to be seen on the largest screen possible to truly appreciate the panoramic views. Creativity truly abounds all around here
Then Dane DeHaan (as Valerian) and Cara Delevingne (as Laureline) show up, lounging on a beach on the holodeck of their ship light years (and literal years) away from what we just saw. The film suddenly screeches to a thunderous halt. Here, at last, are actual flesh-and-blood humans interacting with one another, yet they feel less human than the light blue aliens we just watched, not with their eye-rollingly forced flirtations and absolute lack of chemistry, believability or conviction. It is downright painful to watch two actors so quickly drowning underneath a sea of bad dialogue (which Besson seems to have failed to update in any way from its 1967 origins in the comics) and poor choices.
Sadly, it never really gets any better for them for the rest of the movie. Dane DeHaan trying to play a cocksure, womanizing action hero despite looking and sounding like a sickly little kid playing dress-up is about as squirm-inducing as watching Keanu Reeves perform Shakespeare. Delevingne astonishingly forces you to realize, sadly, Suicide Squad was her high point as an actress, not this. The Honest Trailers folks are going to have a field day with these two, and it won’t even be that hard. The jokes write themselves, what with the number of times Delevingne robotically reads lines like “I’m not having any fun” or “I’m not happy about this.” It’s almost like she’s speaking for the audience.
Which is a shame because the film is never not fun to look at. This is not one of those big budget movies you look at and struggle to understand where all the money went. No, the money is all up there on screen via the thousands of different lifeforms and environments we glimpse. At one point, Valerian chases a thief across the entirety of Alpha, running (and sometimes floating) through every single district, much to the surprise of the alarmed aliens and humans he bumps into. The problem here is you would rather follow the story of literally any one of those background characters, maybe stop and spend some time in their unique district, not just because it looks so visually enticing but because anything would be better than listening to DeHaan and Delevingne talk to each other for one minute longer.
The exact storyline that plays out almost doesn’t matter, particularly considering the various episodic detours it takes (Rihanna shows up as a shapeshifting alien for no reason). Similar to Avatar, this is largely an exercise in style over substance, yet the sheer number of expository cutaways to Alpha officers wondering “hey, where’s Valerian off to now?” indicates somewhere along the line Besson realized people weren’t really following the story. Avatar got away with that shit because it truly was unlike any kind of film we’d seen before, even if its plot was horribly derivative; Valerian doesn’t because regardless of how gorgeous the movie looks and how commendably optimistic its tone the overall experience is not the quantum leap for film technology that Avatar was
So, is Valerian a noble failure or just a failure-failure? I lean toward noble failure because it is hard to come down too hard on the passion, ingenuity and against-the-grain thinking which brought this movie to life. There are ingeniously staged action sequences throughout that are repeatedly undercut by the human performers on screen, yet you still walk away impressed, definitely thinking, “Well, I hadn’t seen that in a movie before” (such as a sting operation conducted in an augmented reality bazar). It’s not dissimilar to Lucas’ prequel trilogy or Avatar in that it wouldn’t be half bad if it wasn’t for those little things like, ya know, directing, writing and acting.
What did you think of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets? Noble failure? Failure-failure? Or somewhere in-between?