Mid-Week Musings: Why ‘Valerian’ wasn’t Successful at the Box-Office

Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets (2017)
Dir: Luc Besson

A visually spectacular sci-fi adventure from the director of ‘The Fifth Element‘, based on beloved comics by created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières that have inspired some blockbusters, with some big star names and no expense spared. So, where did it all go wrong?

I must preface this by pointing out that despite very much wanting to see ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ at the cinema, I somehow missed the chance to and so had to wait for it to be released to watch at home. I wanted to see it on the big screen in all it’s glory possibly even with the 3D because I was hearing so many positive things about how breathtaking it looked and I can see why it would’ve been worth the cost of a ticket, as I will explain.

The film follows two space agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) who are tasked first with recovering the last of a unique species, then later with protecting a commander (Clive Owen) during a summit. As the situation develops and gets more complex, the agents realised that their tasks are linked and that there’s a lot more to what’s going on than they realised.

I didn’t love ‘The Fifth Element‘ in the same way most people did, I remember seeing it for the first time at school and thinking it was almost nonsensical. Then, on rewatching it a few years later, in a much better setting than the classroom, I was able to ‘go with it’ and enjoy the psychedelic visuals and oddball characters in a way that many already had, making it the cult movie it’s now considered as. I hope for a similar experience with this, though after my first viewing I’m in no immediate rush to watch it again.

Written, directed and produced by Luc Besson it can reasonably be considered his film, the work of an auteur. The only other producer is his wife, so I fear there’s no real strong assertive voice to tell him what sucks and needs fixing. His wife Virginie Besson-Silla may be a voice of reason during pre-production but somehow I doubt it, the track record of some of the films she’s produced with her husband isn’t exactly confidence building. Having a producer who isn’t married to the director and could play devil’s advocate for the sake of polishing the script and suchlike would have been invaluable.

Irrefutably, the film looks absolutely wonderful. Firstly there are so many alien creatures with amazing creature design, many good concepts, the really nice production design of locations and ships. It’s really everything you want and would expect from a Besson sci-fi. I liked the opening setup, detailing the history of the ‘city of a thousand planets’ visually. It concisely immerses the viewer in these elements, quickly bombarding with brief introductions to many species and the establishment of the locations and events that will be key to the rest of the film. An early scene with planet Mül are stunning, every bit of the creature design and settings are beautiful to watch and impressed me straight away.

I think the storyline gets too overcomplicated and muddled, leaving it to a lot of exposition to explain everything at the end. There aren’t really any big twists, most things were obvious enough, villains are clearly signposted. It’s a deficiency in the writing above all else and one that could have been better handled. Also mishandled, the central key romance aspect of the film does not work at all. Just as Laureline is unconvinced of her colleague’s sincerity, we as an audience are given no reason to be convinced by it either which means we don’t root for them to get together as a couple at any point. It’s so explicitly stated and clunkily dropped in early on with a flippant proposal. That’s the kind of thing that should be developed over the course of the film, especially as the intention was for it to be the first of a series, so time could have been taken to get that key element right.

It may have everything there for future cult status, and Besson was very vocal and convinced it would be a massive success, ultimately though it seems to have fallen flat at the box office, making a tiny profit on a very large production cost. I expect this failure is in part for much the same reason as ‘John Carter’, the source material has been a source of inspiration for so many other sci-fi films that it now feels like it’s copying them. To those familiar with the original material these films may seem like a great idea, indeed both had fantastic budgets and certain plans for sequels, but to the otherwise unaware cinema-going audience who have a general liking for this genre, these films end up feeling unoriginal, derivative, nothing they haven’t seen before in films they liked far more. They don’t necessarily know that what they feel this is ripping off, was actually inspired by the comics, a phenomenon even more acutely true with ‘John Carter’ that predated all the sci-fi films it reminded people of and was in many cases directly an inspiration for.

Does this mean that these older, seminal sources shouldn’t get long-overdue adaptations? Of course not. In my opinion, though, their focus should be shifted from big-budget sci-fi spectacles that rely heavily on the visuals, to story-centric films that make the most of the characters and storylines. Both of these examples do need the CGI to faithfully render them to screen but they have also both suffered from a weakness in the story development and script, losing a lot of what made fan anticipate them in the first place. If they were to be adapted more faithfully, with clear and compelling stories and perfectly developed characters, that would better appeal to fans of the original material as they would want to see such a good adaptation, as well as offering the general cinema-goers more than sci-fi spectacle that they’ve already seen before.

When on home release and given a little time, it has a good chance of growing in popularity. I also believe this should get award recognition for the visual effects, they are so extensive and of such high quality to rival some of the best we ever see from Hollywood. In the end though, I don’t know if it will, though it is on the shortlist for the relevant Oscar, it’s up against some other films that are impressive in other more important ways.

It may have future ‘cult’ status, most of the elements are there, though I think the lack of likeable leads and missing sparks of narrative genius would put that future in some doubt. It’s entertaining enough, though at well over 2 hours it stretches the limits of how much a viewer will sit through for impressive visuals alone. 

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