This review contains spoilers.
I really don’t want much from my summer blockbusters. Pretty visuals, moderately attractive actors, a well-plotted, simple story and gender politics that don’t make my eyes bleed. Is that really too much to ask?
I seem to have said this about a lot of things this year: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has all the ingredients of A Good Film, or, at least, An Inoffensive Film. (That’s why I went to see it, after all.) In its first sequence, we see the titular city, Alpha, being built around the International Space Station, as a series of alien races shake hands with the human crew: it becomes a concatenation, an accretion of architectures as decades pass, until eventually it becomes big enough to threaten Earth’s gravitational stability (OK, if you say so, Hollywood) and sails off into the big black to find its own destiny.
Whoever designed Alpha did a brilliant job, by the way: it looks grown not made, as all real cities do.
So. Fast forward a century or so. (Possibly; I can’t actually remember the timescales all this takes place on.) Something is rotten in the heart of Alpha: an apparently toxic zone has appeared inexplicably deep inside the city; communications devices don’t work inside and police squadrons who have entered don’t come out again. Our Heroes, special police agents Valerian and Laureline, are sent to investigate. What’s growing in the city? And does it have anything to do with the mysterious ghost-planet of Mul, which seems to have vanished from the archives?
Spoiler: yes, it does. As it turns out, Mul, a seaside paradise occupied by a peaceful, iridescent race of humanoids called the Pearls, was destroyed during a war between humanity and another alien race; a casualty of a doomsday device deployed partly in order to advance the interests of the human race, without proper due diligence. The Pearls who survived are refugees hiding in the toxic zone until they can build a new paradise aboard a spaceship and leave.
So, the film nods at colonialism and the toxicity of capitalist self-interest; that’s one thing that makes it potentially more promising than much of the Hollywood blockbuster crop. It’s also, Star Trek-ily, mildly interested in the processes of democratic governance: there is much talk of summits and protocols and chains of command. It gestures at an awareness that, in a place like Alpha, systems are more important than individuals in maintaining peace and cooperation. That awareness feels radical, in a capitalist society that valorises individual competition and achievement.
The background of the film is fascinating. It’s the foreground that gives me pause.
Because the central relationship of the film is between Valerian and Laureline. There’s never any doubt as to where this relationship is heading: almost the first thing Valerian does on screen is ask Laureline – his junior, by the way – to marry him. She refuses; she doesn’t want to become another notch on his bedpost – or, in the parlance of the film, another track on his playlist. It quickly becomes clear that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is going to be the story of how Valerian wins the love of his fair Laureline.
Excuse me while I gag.
(Do I really need to point out that this is effectively workplace harassment? That it’s completely inappropriate for a commanding officer to put pressure on his junior officer in this way? That no means no means no, and why can’t the film industry get a handle on that?)
What’s worse, Laureline is a Strong Female Character of the “Girl Power!!” variety. She’s superficially badass – wise-cracking, gun-toting – but she’s dressed in clothing that screams Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and also Totally Inappropriate For Military Action. She insists that she can handle things herself, but she shouts Valerian’s name when she’s in danger (and he’s not even there). She wants to be treated like a professional, but she has a tantrum when Valerian doesn’t thank her for saving him. She literally gets served up on a fucking plate to a man-eating alien. This is what director Luc Besson thinks a strong, self-assured woman looks like: eye candy, a reward for the man who can put up with her tantrums, a person whose world revolves around male approval.
And then there’s singer Rihanna’s character: a shapeshifting immigrant prostitute who spends three solid minutes doing a sexy dance for Valerian for no conceivable plot reason, who survives just long enough to save Valerian and Laureline from the man-eating aliens and then dies happy in the knowledge that she has secured Valerian’s explicit approval. Why. Why. Why.
The denouement of the film actually sort of answers that question, and the question of how such an interesting and promising background produced such a terrible foreground. There’s a lot of things that could be said about the ending; I’m interested in its sudden insistence that Valerian isn’t, and shouldn’t be, defined by Alpha’s rules and protocols, when the rest of the film – certainly to my reading, anyway – seems to be suggesting that actually rules and protocols and systems keep people safe, keep power accountable. The film industry likes its mavericks, of course, and that’s why Valerian needs to break the rules – because male blockbuster protagonists have (ironically) to conform to capitalist logics of individualism and competition. He has to “win” the film, to be better (morally) than the conglomerate that is Alpha, that is effectively the film’s world. He has to be the hero, and that means no-one else can be.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn’t work because its character action and its setting don’t match up. Its setting is socialist, communal, collective, hopeful – a city, a community trying to make things work for everybody. Its character action is the complete opposite of that – competitive, oppressive, individualist. Maybe that list of things I want in a summer blockbuster really is too much to ask, because “decent gender politics” isn’t something summer blockbusters are set up to deliver.
Still. I live in hope.