I now understand why Valerian bombed

How could Valerian fail? Luc Besson, $200 million budget, the stills and clips I saw beforehand were visually spectacular. And then I watched it last night. I would have fallen asleep if the flashing colors hadn’t made my eyes hurt. Besson made a movie with fantastic visuals, but he forgot to include little details like a sensible plot and relatable characters and some motivation for wanting the characters to succeed; it’s like being given the job of making a cake, not bothering with substance, and building an elaborate confection out of nothing but marzipan and lots and lots of food coloring.

It starts out interestingly enough, with a series of scenes starting with a contemporary ship docking with a space station, and visitors and residents shaking hands. Then, over time, the station gets bigger, more ships come, more handshakes, and eventually aliens show up, and we see a succession of weird aliens. Well, not so weird. My first disappointment is that all of the aliens are still all two-eyed bipeds with hands that can be shaken — for all the enthusiasm for Besson’s imagination, it has flopped down and died in the first 10 minutes. One of the tedious things about the visual effects in this movie is that he’s just ramped up the garishness that we saw in The Fifth Element — there are many scenes that are just incoherent, full of loud flashing colors and random design elements. It’s a lot like a Michael Bay movie without the violence.

The second disappointment is simple innumeracy. The space station has grown so much it has to be moved out of Earth orbit…to the Magellanic clouds? That’s quite a move, all the way out of our galaxy. But then later we learn that it was moved 700 million miles, which is just a small fraction of a light year. Scale and scope are completely confusing in this movie.

Then we cut to a distant alien planet called Mül, although in my head it was actually the Planet of the Androgynous Supermodels on a Beach Shoot. We’re introduced to the McGuffin of the movie, a magical rat thing (it looks a bit like Skrat, from the Ice Age cartoons, with warts) that, when fed these blue marbles, poops out buckets full of duplicate blue marbles that are tremendous power sources with ten times the energy needed to power an interstellar starship, but which the supermodels use to wash their face with in the morning. Suddenly, the planet is destroyed. Supermodels look weepy and horrified.

Fast cut to our Heroes, Valerian and Laureline. Valerian is a cocky frat boy. Laureline is aloof. They’re in love, I guess. We need to be told that, because you sure aren’t going to see it in their chemistry. The whole movie is then about these two young people scurrying about to reunite the Supermodels with Magical Rat Thing and a Blue Marble, although they don’t have a clue what they’re doing themselves. Neither do we. There’s some irrelevant nonsense about a growing danger to the space station and bad robots and misunderstandings and nefarious conspiracies that don’t really matter, and then it ends with some treacle about the power of love.

That’s it. That’s the whole movie. Two hundred million dollars worth of marzipan and food coloring. Skip it. Watch the psychedelic wormhole sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey again, it’s about as flashy and will leave you no less confused.

Which makes me think…maybe Valerian would have been more entertaining if I’d been high on ‘shrooms while watching it.


  1. hemidactylus says

    Big budget confectionary glaze? I love it. Best review ever. Ironically Valerian is an herb that lulls you into a dreamy state. Intended?

    I can’t believe people were overjoyed to commemorate the anniversary of Fifth Element. A former friend dragged me along to see that two decades ago. Unforgivable.

    Thanks for heads up PZ. I will pass on BluRay too then.

  2. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Wait, what it poops has more energy than what it eats? And it doesn’t freeze solid or shrink?

  3. Rowan vet-tech says

    I saw it. Loved the visuals even though the ones from mul looked like even more humanoid not-blue navi. Hated the main characters. They were too young (9 years in service? What, did he start when he was 8 years old? ) and frat boy is definitely a good description of the male lead. I spent most of his screen time wanting to punch him for being so loathsome. Hated that the movie killed off the one secondary character with the potential to be were interesting when it didn’t actually have to kill them. Hated the pooping rat. Why could it not have shed the scales when doing is duplication trick?

  4. lumipuna says

    As a teenager, I liked the original comics for eye candy but could never really bother to follow the plots.

  5. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    As I understand it, the premise is that the things that it eats contain lots of energy – more than the rats need – but it is difficult to process into useful fuel. As a byproduct of the digestive process, the excreted food is simple and cheap to turn into useful fuel.

    but I may be wrong. I”m getting that 2nd hand.

  6. Rowan vet-tech says

    It will duplicate anything that is small enough for it to eat… like earrings for example.

  7. Gorogh, Lounging Peacromancer says

    Spot on, PZ.

    Still, I would have emphasized some of the terrible and trope-ridden “dialogues”, e.g. weird infobroker aliens stating, “We know how humans work. They are all so predictable…” and Laureline countering, “clearly, you’ve never met a woman”, or inexplicably changes of heart like Valerian pointing out how he’s a soldier and first and foremost must follow duty, one minute after punching a superior officer unconscious… or how it’s great that the not-so-blue Na’vi leave it to Valerian and Laureline to decide their fate because clearly, they need a white savior and couldn’t just kill the two fuckers and their colonel and leave with their pearls or whatever…

    Gah such a waste of time and money.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    it’s like being given the job of making a cake, not bothering with substance, and building an elaborate confection out of nothing but marzipan and lots and lots of food coloring.

    There are multiple shows on teh TV where they do just that. I think fondant is the preferred construction material these days, but I didn’t notice any mention of how the cakes taste.

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Rowan: Really? That is magic.

    Fun, and completely different from what I heard 2nd hand in a comic store. I knew I couldn’t count on that shit.

  10. weylguy says

    I had the same reaction with E.T. – The Extraterrestrial when it first came out — a magical but clunky-looking and poorly designed feel-good puppet that had a glowing chest, a flashlight built into the tip of his finger and the ability to fly on a bicycle and transfer alcoholic tipsiness to bis little school pal. That, plus he’s essentially immortal and just wants to go home. We also had Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which I had to endure interminable hours of Richard Dreyfuss obsessively building pyramidal mounds of dirt and mashed potatoes, concluding with a giant keyboard playing ominous, ear-splitting noise by oh-so-wise scientists who somehow knew what was going on all the time.

    These films were hampered by the limitations of 1970s imagery, a drawback that has now been overcome by stunning CGI technology. Unfortunately, like those movies, today’s films still lack plot, acting and scientific believability. I predict that when production budgets hit $1 billion, these films will be 100% CGI and 0% everything else.

  11. hemidactylus says

    #11- weylguy

    In retrospect those movies weren’t up to the hype. Though this Valerian might be cool for hi-def TV just for imagery, I’d rather rewatch Avatar, one of the first BluRays I watched on my new hi-def. Come to think of it Cameron’s Sanctum was a watchable movie as the cavediver leads others to their doom.

    Among my favorite movies have come out of the blue, via fortuitous viewings on TV. Donnie Darko and Ghost Dog rank high. And it was the storyline that grabbed me in each case, not overdone effects. One of the few movies I’ve seen at the theatre recently was Free State of Jones. The story seemed intriguing despite the Lincoln commercial guy. I kinda want to see Idris Elba hunt him down, perhaps on BluRay.

    Overhyped effects driven big budgets are not my thing, though I must admit to having an affinity for aspects of Bay’s Transformer overkill. Some of the heavy action Transformer showdowns were riveting. I don’t know why. Something primal? Inner kid? But one or two of those was enough.

  12. says

    I am reminded of one of Isaac Asimov’s articles for TV Guide back in the sixties. He commented on the new series “Lost in Space.” The Jupiter 2 mission to Alpha Centauri goes off course and ends up exploring the galaxy. Asimov said this was like a boy on a tricycle in Kansas City making a wrong turn and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. As best as I can recall. Innumeracy and violations of physics are standard features of mass-media science fiction.

  13. johnmarley says

    @Matthew Wise (#12)

    I vaguely recall a Futurama episode about a pet that pooped starship fuel. Sounds like rewatching that would be a better use of my time.

    Which also has the advantage of being at least slightly more plausible, since Nibbler had to consume an incredible amount of food first (A Noah’s ark style cargo hold full of species rescued from a doomed planet = one pellet of “dark matter”)

  14. Vivec says

    I enjoyed the succulent cuttlefish people, but the plot was dumb, the characterization was all over the place, and the middle of the movie is filler with no relevance to the actual plot.

    It was a pretty view of the future though, and I loved the intro scene with the ISS expanding.

  15. says

    How could Valerian fail? Luc Besson, $200 million budget, the stills and clips I saw beforehand were visually spectacular. And then I watched it last night. I would have fallen asleep if the flashing colors hadn’t made my eyes hurt.

    I think the movie is ironically named, given that valerian root is used as a natural remedy for inducing sleep. It sounds like the movie itself could be used as a sleep aid.

    Ah Luc Besson, how you have fallen since the 90s.

  16. says

    Well, it’s Luc Besson. Guy hasn’t made a decent movie in over 20 years.

    Haven’t watched the movie. I think I’d prefer to just reread the comics.

  17. daemonios says

    I was at a loss for words after watching this.

    Valerian is the worst hero ever. Misogynous, cocky, totally unrelatable. Laurel one doesn’t do much besides slowly warming up to that creep. And playing damsel in distress, because obviously.

    The aliens on that planet are an excuse to show scantily clad skinny bodies close enough to human in appearance that it reeks of objectification.

    Valerian asks for an update on what’s been going on since he was last at the station, but the movie goes on to introduce it as if he had no prior knowledge at all – simply nonsensical.

    We are treated to a pole dance by a suitably endowed female – more bare flesh, yay! – who is revealed to be a shape shifter. Pretty cool, actually. Except the shape shifter is killed by a wound suffered off-screen and summarily discarded. Who needs shape shifters who can play sexy babes or giant aliens after they’ve served the hero’s purpose, right?

    Speaking of purpose, Valerian needed the shape shifter to sneak into an enclave of antisocial aliens without creating a diplomatic incident, then proceeds to carry out a genocide of said aliens.

    Honestly, I didn’t think anyone could make movies this bad in 2017, let alone an acclaimed director working with a $200M budget.

  18. hemidactylus says

    Well Luc Besson did writing/production stuff on Taken and Colombiana. I wouldn’t totally dismiss those movies. I enjoyed Zoe Saldana as a vengeful badass. Colombiana had some intense action, but fell apart in places. Taken has one of the best pieces of dialogue ever:

    “…what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”

    But he also had some writing and production role in the Transporter nonsense. Terrible. But preferable to Fifth Element by far. Some things cannot be unseen.

  19. Mark Jacobson says

    Even calling 700 million miles a small fraction of a light year is overblowing it, it’s not even the distance from the sun to Saturn. I might as well have said I put the milk on the moon when I returned it to the fridge, I’d be a good five times more accurate.

  20. microraptor says

    hemidactylus @21: Taken was an utter nonsense movie about how scary brown people kidnap white women with a side message that not being pure and virginal will get you killed.

    Personally, I guessed that this movie was going to fail just because it’s been so long since we’ve gotten a decent space opera movie. Last year we got Rogue One, and prior to that the last one I can name was Serenity.

  21. ck, the Irate Lump says

    I often wonder if the way film making is structured is completely wrong. Too many directors have one or two strengths, and are completely terrible at everything else. Luc Besson produces spectacular, colourful visuals, but doesn’t really excel outside of that.

  22. brucegee1962 says

    I agree with everything that people have said so far.

    I thought the scene with the virtual/holographic shopping mall (or whatever the heck it was) was a cool idea and well executed.

    But the dialogue! I came out saying “This makes George Lucas look like frigging Shakespeare.”

  23. says

    Every now and again I think I should get out and see more movies. Then I read a review — any review, anywhere, by anybody — and realize that I’m just fine as I am, thank you very much.

    And what’s wrong with nothing but marzipan? You might not want to eat such a cake in large slices, but marzipan is delicious. Even with food coloring.

  24. garysturgess says

    Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Valerian, and judging by the preview alone I wasn’t intending to.

    That said, Vicar@27, really? One bad movie and you might as well ignore the entire medium? Even if you don’t like anything Hollywood has to offer, there has rarely been a time so vibrant for independent film as now, and it’s virtually unbelievable that there’s nothing out there that would interest you. I’m pretty sure there are even movies made specifically for people who hate movies, if you look around. :)

  25. numerobis says

    elaborate confection out of nothing but marzipan and lots and lots of food coloring.

    Every self-respecting patisserie has a display of elaborate confections made of marzipan and food colouring (and maybe candy for the beady eyes). They go for about $2/piece in Montreal. Cute little piggies, mice, etc. And, of course, they’re delicious.

  26. Rowan vet-tech says

    YOB, I love the 5th Element too.

    Valerian was visually beautiful but any scene with valerian and laurel is going to irritate the fuck out of you. I hate both those characters but especially dudebro valerian.

  27. consciousness razor says

    Ye Olde Blacksmith, I don’t think there’s much of a comparison between the two. The visual style is very striking in both, and of course they are both sci-fi/fantasy stories in space. That’s about as far as it goes.

    Fifth Element is funny and memorable, its characters have comprehensible motivations and personalities, their actions are compelling and merit your attention, there is a narrative consisting of (more or less significant/meaningful) events that are presented in some kind of orderly fashion, and so forth. In other words, it has all sorts of features you may expect from any reasonably well-developed, ordinary, non-experimental movie.

    Valerian does attempt these things, but the overall impression I got was an incoherent succession of spectacles and concepts, presumably extracted from the comics which I never read. Somebody evidently had too many precious ideas, and they couldn’t bear to leave them on the cutting-room floor. If it had been made as a trilogy or some other sort of serial project, then perhaps the bullshit (if it really had to be there) would’ve been spread out over enough time, so that something like a story, character development, etc., could have taken place in between.

    One thing PZ mentioned is that most of the main characters don’t seem to know why they’re doing the things they’re doing. It may not sound so bad, but much of the action is just gratuitously unmotivated: they do this, then they got this order, then the next thing, etc. They get themselves into bits of trouble again and again, so it makes sense that they get themselves back out of it again and again, but it really doesn’t feel like enough to hold the whole story together. And once you put together where things are eventually headed (well before the characters do), it’s all just downhill from there.

    I also didn’t feeling happy with the casting — most weren’t terrible, but the Fifth Element had a bunch of really interesting actors who could make nearly anything at least mildly entertaining. Then again, it would take a troop of miracle workers to make something decent out of the dialogue in Valerian…. So maybe I’m not being fair to the cast.