‘Valerian’: Is the Spiritual Successor to ‘The Fifth Element’ Actually Worth Your Time?

Matthew Loffhagen
STX Entertainment
(Photo: STX Entertainment)

One thing’s for certain: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is absolutely gorgeous.

Based on everything we’ve seen thus far, in trailers, featurettes, and stills, this movie is very much of the Avatar mold, with dazzling special effects creating a visual treat that looks suitably alien for most viewers.

There is a danger, though, to having too much worldbuilding in a movie. At least one clip that we’ve seen provides a huge dump of exposition that’s really not necessary to the plot – if the background behind the various communities within this universe can’t be communicated through the narrative of the story, it seems like all this attention to detail might just be the result of overactive concept artists, rather than anything that actually helps the setting in Valerian feel like a living, breathing universe.

Early reviews for Luc Besson’s new movie are in, and they’re mixed to say the least. Some people love it, and that’s great, while the majority of reviewers think it’s fallen pretty far from the mark.

This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – no matter how blown away we all were by the visuals pf Avatar nearly a decade ago, nobody really cared for the story. Similarly, Besson’s most famous sci-fi movie, The Fifth Element, has not aged well in the slightest.

It’s logical, then, that all the special effects in the world can’t help Valerian if the story isn’t solid, the characters are too dry, and the actors can’t pull off their roles.

As computer effects get more complex, this error keeps slipping into big budget movies: filmmakers forget that, no matter how pretty a movie, audiences need to engage with the story in order to actually care.

As well as looking like Avatar, there’s also an element of John Carter of Mars to Valerian, and this movie didn’t receive nearly as much praise, in large part because audiences had already gotten used to the idea of beautiful CGI worlds, and were more critical of the movie’s characters and story.

Similarly, it’s hard to avoid talking about pretty much any movie from Zack Snyder here – each of the Batman v Superman director’s movies are absolutely gorgeous, but in the mad rush to create as many eyecatching visuals as possible, Snyder often overlooks the importance of a coherent narrative.

Reviews for Valerian are a warning sign to say the least, especially when so many similar movies have ended up being a hot pile of garbage thanks to a heavy focus on pretty pictures and a relatively underdeveloped narrative.

It’s probably wrong to rely too heavily on a reviewer for a breakdown of whether a movie is worth watching, though. There’s real beauty in this movie, and not everyone goes to see a film in order to be told a powerful story.

As a test, then, to see whether you’d be interested in seeing Valerian, try asking yourself these questions:

Would your enjoyment of a sci-fi movie be damaged if you couldn’t hear the dialogue?

Do you prefer your action movies to have strong characters, even if it means fewer explosions?

Would you rather eat a pineapple whole (skin and all) rather than watch The Fifth Element again?

If you can firmly answer “no” to all of the above questions, then Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might just be the perfect summer blockbuster for you.

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