Why you should watch Valerian even if it’s offensive

Valerian is a vivid sci-fi spectacle and creative, flawed expression of Luc Besson’s unusual mind. The new film sets a high-water mark for world building, but is also stitched together by problematic stereotypes.

I should state up front that I’m a fan of Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element. I’ve seen it several times, and my friends regularly quote its quirky dialogue. (“No, no, no, no, no, no… yes.”) The grimy vision of the future featured some brilliant performances by Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman, with prominent roles given to Chris Tucker (astoundingly inventive as an intergalactic DJ) and a surly DJ Tricky playing a mob henchman.

Chris Tucker’s brilliant performance in The Fifth Element

Mila Jovovich was spritely and nubile in a way that would seem outdated and sexist today — I mean she runs around in a duct-tape bikini for most of the film, and is unhealthily thin — but since she spoke an unintelligible language and saved Earth from destruction, much was forgiven. The Fifth Element owed an obvious debt to Blade Runner, but so too do a lot of films, and its comedic take on high-future technology was refreshing. I remember wanting to see more of the corrupt society that so pained and frustrated Bruce Willis (“Corbyn, my man!”).

Tricky was surly-cool in The Fifth Element

Moderate spoiler alert.

Twenty years have passed since the release of The Fifth Element, so I was thrilled to see what would spring from Besson’s imagination. Valerian is a complex tale based on a comic book that involves two special forces soldiers on a galactic mission to save an endangered species. Along the way, they uncover a more sinister conspiracy to exterminate a really beautiful and peaceful alien race called the Mül. One of the soldiers is named Valerian and the other is Laureline — you’ll hear Valerian’s name spoken aloud a lot in the film. Like, a lot.

Valerian features world building on an almost unimaginable scale. Every set piece is rich with exquisite detail — space ships and stars sailing past; vegetation swaying in the breeze; a menagerie of wonderful creatures; and a multidimensional shopping district. The two main opening sequences absolutely dazzled me: one depicting the tropical world of the people of Mül; and another showing the construction of the giant space station Alpha, which featured, notably, Africans and Indians and Chinese collaborating together in space. It’s worth paying the price of a 3D ticket for those scenes alone.

But it gets better. There are so many creative elements that demand rewatching, especially on the space station Alpha, which teems with technological marvels and weird biology. And like The Fifth Element, the weapons the soldiers use are highly original — magnetic b-b’s that lock you in place and slime capsules that force you to hibernate. The fact that bullets don’t cause people to bleed helps make the film feel like a trippy, fantastical ride.

Valerian relies heavily on the culture and ornamentation of the Masai

World building is hard

World building in science fiction is very difficult, because the creator’s imagination is shaped here on Earth with terrestrial biology. So it makes sense that we often imagine creatures that look like peoples and animals we already have here on our planet. But what makes world building so noticeable in Valerian is that Luc Besson is also making a satirical film that plays with scifi tropes. So he wants the creatures to behave differently and provoke a laugh, or maybe a chuckle.

Satire’s slippery slope

Sadly satire’s best friend is stereotype. You see this in the royal feast in which the soldier Laureline is nearly fed to an alien king. It’s a classic colonialist image of cannibals feasting on lost explorers. You see this in the three, bat-like creatures who scheme to make money, which could be easily interpreted as anti-Semitic. You also see this in the multidimensional market, which is quite similar to a Moroccan souq. It’s as if Luc Besson went on a bunch of trips to exotic places (former European colonies) and fed them all into the story.

And yet, somehow I found myself laughing through all these scenes and enjoying them immensely. I would watch them again, because I’m willing to think that Luc Besson either didn’t know any better, or that he did know but managed to blunt the sharpest edges of these stereotypes. I smiled, chuckled, and laughed — I’ll admit it.

The Masai are one of the most popular depictions of African culture

The Mül may be the most problematic culture in the film, mostly because they are so clearly modeled after the Masai people from East Africa. Their jewelry and ornamentation are nearly identical. And if you want to take it further, they worship the little “converter” creatures, which can replicate any source of matter, sort of like the reverence of the Masai for cattle, which play a crucial role in their culture. Beyond that, Besson seems to be alluding to the noble savage, that the Mül are a mythical culture unsullied by civilization that run pure until space ships (Western culture) drop into their midst and annihilate them.

And yet, once again, I loved watching the Mül. They are beautiful to look at. They blush with anger in a charming way, their brows flooding with dark color. They’re not blue-skinned like the creatures in Avatar, but they have a pallid glow to them. I didn’t think of the Mül as white washing the Masai — I thought of them as alien-washing the Masai. I loved their Swahili-like greetings and the subtle affection they expressed for each other. They spoke poetically, yet directly — I suppose much like Isak Dinesen’s depiction of the Masai in Out of Africa. 

So yeah, I’m conflicted about the Mül.

Well, there’s that

Just so you don’t feel hoodwinked, I should mention that excellent critics have observed the lack of chemistry (and acting ability) of the two main characters played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. DeHaan’s pokey line delivery merely underscores how good Bruce Willis’s assured performance was in The Fifth Element. Other writers have also criticized the stilted dialogue. Maybe it’s not too late to overdub the whole thing in other languages when it debuts in other countries — the Chinese and French and Germans would stand to enjoy a better film.

There were also other aspects of Valerian that felt dated. The Fifth Element seemed avant garde and creative in 1997  with its casting of Chris Tucker and Tricky. It was surprising that there were still only two black supporting actors in Valerian – twenty years later. And Jovovich’s extraterrestrial innocence and nudity worked before, but it feels somehow exploitative with Cara Delevingne. You would think that, four hundred years into the future, two of the galaxy’s most decorated soldiers would not still be making jokes about women being weak, or treating traditional marriage as the ultimate prize when they don’t seem to like each other all that much.

On  the whole, I enjoyed Valerian and think it’s a must watch for any science fiction fan. It sets a new standard for visual complexity and sheer whimsicality. You might not agree with all of Luc Besson’s creative choices, but it’s hard not to find something redeeming over the course of the sprawling film’s two hours. Go see it.

Leave a Reply