The previews for 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets made it look like a bonkers, over the top, sci-fi spectacle. My wife and I finally got around to watching it a week ago and found out that that was almost exactly what it was, but it’s also just a bit more.
The titular Valerian and his partner/love interest Laureline are special agents for the human government who go on dangerous, covert ops to infiltrate alien operations and extract import artifacts and intel. Pretty standard sci-fi stuff, which is complemented by incredible special effects, super-technology that makes less and less sense the more you think about it, and a mystery involving corrupt military officials. None of this side of things was bad, but most of it felt pretty predictable, and very well represented by the previews.
The little bit extra, the little bit more that I hadn’t anticipated from the previews, is that this movie draws a lot of inspiration from fantasy. The French comic series the movie is based on started in 1967 and ran up to 2010, and a lot of classic fantasy tropes from the 70s and 80s seem to shine in the movie version. The hero has to go on an adventure to save the girl, which brings him to weird locals with even weirder residents that he has to befriend or destroy. These sequences are weird, outlandish, and do a great job of having the audience feel just as out of place as the character. The way that Valerian encounters, disrupts, and escapes from a series of “others” feels more like Willow or Labrinyth than it does Star Wars or Trek.
Ultimately, I really liked Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets a lot. It was a total popcorn movie, with character development and world building sidelined for spectacle and thrills, but it was fun! I really think the fantasy elements are what made it work, because the movie was clearly not interested in developing and explaining exopolitics and future technology. Accepting that everything operates more like magic than science let me get absorbed in the world, and shout “what!?” with glee and excitement instead of disbelief and frustration.