Catnip It Ain’t

Warning: Spoilers abound. But you may not care.

The most noteworthy aspect of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may just be the title. Never before in my experience has a title so accurately summarized everything that’s wrong with a movie.

It’s worth noting that when Maggie and I got home from the theater, the cats wanted to know if we had brought them any valerian. If you didn’t know, valerian (the herb) has a very catnip-like effect on cats. It also stinks to high heaven and tends to depress the human nervous system. The parallel is obvious.

Though, to be fair, Valerian (the movie) doesn’t stink that badly. It just takes a few wrong turns.

Let’s start with that title. Alpha is a “city of a thousand planets” in the same way that New York is a city of eight million stories. It’s a city. In space. With, so we’re told, residents who come from a thousand different species. It’s marketing. Hey, if the main character drops by to visit me in the sequel, we can call the movie “Valerian and the City of Pride and Purpose”. That almost sounds exciting.

Oh, and let’s not forget about Laureline. Although whoever named the film sure did. The original comics that the movie was based on are called “Valerian and Laureline”. And she gets nearly as much screen time as he does. But she’s apparently not enough of a marketing draw to make the title. Which pretty well summarizes her role in the film, come to think of it. When Valerian isn’t around, Laureline is, by and large, a kick-ass character. And as soon as he comes into the room–whether she knows he’s there or not–she turns into the archetypal helpless movie female. Hell, he doesn’t even have to be in the same room: just talking to him on the radio turns her into such a ditz she doesn’t realize she’s holding a map upside down! (Insert laughter here–because the audience in the theater didn’t supply any.)

I wanted to like the movie, even if it was only in a “turn off the brain and enjoy the pretty pictures” way. And for the first ten minutes or so, I thought I might. Opening with a space scene a la 2001 set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was a lovely way to invert a SF film trope. And then the opening narration blew away my suspension of disbelief.

We’re told that Alpha, the space station that grew up around the International Space Station, got so big that its gravity endangered the Earth and it needs to be moved out of the way. This is wrong on so many levels, I don’t even want to discuss it. I may have missed a couple of lines because I was banging my head against the seat in front of me, but the next thing I remember is that after several centuries, Alpha has moved “seven hundred million miles”. Big whoop. That’s not even as far as Saturn. From the perspective of a culture that routinely moves from one solar system to another in minutes, covering 700,000,000 miles in three or four centuries is like me walking up to the mini-mart on the corner.

Yeah, I get it. The film is based on a comic book, something not known for scientific accuracy. But how difficult would it be to change a couple of sentences to avoid the worst clunkers. Send Alpha out on a mission to spread Earth’s culture to the universe, and change “700,000,000 miles” to “7000 light years”. Problems solved–still sufficiently comic book, but not as grating to the ear.

Then there was the mcguffin, the living 3D printer that can create unlimited copies of anything–including fully-powered batteries that hold enough juice to power a spaceship–with no raw materials. And what good is having the critter going to do the Pearls? Unless they can convince it to duplicate itself–something that seems unlikely, given the film’s apparently universal rule that all species have two sexes–someday it’s going to die and take their utopian civilization with it.

And I haven’t even touched on the main plot, which relies so heavily on coincidence and character stupidity that it almost makes Star Trek Beyond seem logical. Almost. At least there’s no motorcycle.

All that said, still, the visuals are spectacular, the set pieces are at least competently executed, and there are some nice auditory jokes hidden in the music. The film’s biggest problems are that it’s too long and its plot not only makes no sense, but brings the film to a screeching halt every time it comes to the fore.

Fortunately, one fix would solve both problems. Trim the film by thirty minutes by simply cutting out the plot. The remaining travelogue and explosions would come in at a comfortable hour and three-quarters, and make a perfectly serviceable late night film.