I saw Luc Besson’s latest movie so you don’t have to.
1. What’s it about?
Five hundred years in the future, mankind has pushed our space station out into deep space, where it’s become a central hub for thousands of alien species to come together. But bad stuff is happening on board, and it’s up to space commandos Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to save the day. Or something like that.
Honestly, what the movie is really about is Luc Besson being given an apparently unlimited special effects budget and constructing the thinnest of thin plots to show off his vision of the future.
2. Will kids enjoy, though? Will I?
This is best summed up by the man sitting in the theater behind me, who, about 2/3 of the way through, said to his companion, “This is so awful.”
It’s certainly a bright, beautiful world filled with tons and tons of aliens and cool ships. That might be enough to keep some folks occupied if it wasn’t also 2 hours and 17 minutes long. That goes way beyond “oh cool look at that” and well into “make it stop already.” Sure, kids can be distracted by cool stuff for a time, but even they like stories. I can’t imagine too many kids not ending up completely bored by this movie. And because it’s so overly long, that boredom is likely to set in when you still have a solid hour to go. And honestly, that applies to adults, too.
The movie is entirely style without substance.
3. What’s it rated? Why?
The movie is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.” The movie is basically non-stop violence. Every character sees violence as a first resort: there’s never an attempt to try to talk things through. When characters aren’t actively shooting at each other, they’re threatening violence. There are several beheadings and lots of aliens being stabbed and otherwise meeting fairly gory deaths.
The “suggestive material” is almost certainly Valerian’s decision to wander into the station’s red light district and watch a burlesque show. But more on that in a moment.
4. How does the movie treat women?
I went into the movie expecting to see a bunch of cool effects and very little story, so I wasn’t too surprised on that point, but the level of gross sexism did shock me.
For starters, take Cara Delevingne’s costumes. When we first meet her, she’s wearing a swimsuit that I guess technically counts as a one-piece but is really little more than a glorified bikini. She’s then ordered to “put on something more appropriate” for a dangerous mission on an alien world, and she shows up wearing this outfit that honestly is basically a bikini with a jacket. After that mission, we see her in her military uniform–a one-piece jacket/skirt thing that ends above her knees. Basically, the exact thing they thought was good for women in wear in the space military in 1960s-era Star Trek. Next, she and Valerian switch into space armor, but hers has rather prominent boob armor. Because of course it does. Finally, she spends the last portion of the movie in what amounts to a wedding dress.
But beyond the designed-by-a-12-year-old-boy costumes, there’s the issue of Delevingne’s character overall. She’s initially shown as a strong, very intelligent, independent woman. She’s an accomplished pilot and clearly the brains of the operation, being the only person in the movie who ever attempts to do something sciencey. On several occasions, she comes to the rescue of Valerian as he stupidly rushes head-long into things. But then, as if Luc Besson can’t be entirely OK with his female lead turning out to be the real hero of the movie, she gets captured because–and I so, so much wish I was exaggerating this even a little–she gets distracted by a bright, shiny, pretty thing. She’s thrown into a cage, forced to change into the above-mentioned wedding dress, and prepared to become a human sacrifice. Given how many times she saves him, it’s OK at this point that he saves her, but it’s worth noting that his reckless acts never put him in quite as much danger as her one reckless act puts her. Essentially, she devolves over the course of the film, from the strong courageous woman at the start to a stock damsel-in-distress towards the end.
And while she’s in captivity, Valerian decides that the best way to rescue her is to wander into the station’s red light district. There, he sits down and, while he’s fully aware that his partner is in mortal danger, spends several minutes watching a burlesque show performed by a shape-shifting alien played by Rihanna. It’s at this point in the film that we are introduced to the only other woman with more than a couple of lines–the only other female character who becomes an actual character we might care about–and, of course, she’s a sex slave.
But the fact that she’s a sex slave isn’t perhaps the biggest problem with Rihanna’s character.
Warning: this paragraph contains a spoiler. Skip it if you are going to see the film.
She’s one of only three characters in the movie played by a black actor, and the only black woman, and so, of course, she’s othered as an alien. An alien who exists solely to pleasure human men by taking on all kinds of other forms, most of them white. And also, of course, she dies to save Valerian, who spends about 30 seconds being sad by that before entirely forgetting her and moving on with his life. (This isn’t the only time that characters aren’t even slightly bothered by the death and violence around them.)
There are other women in the movie, but it’s also important to note that not a single one is ever shown in a position of power. There’s even a long opening sequence that shows a montage of astronauts meeting first other astronauts (it begins with the Apollo-Soyuz mission), and eventually bunches of aliens, and while there are a sprinkling of women astronauts in the scene, the leaders are always men. That continues in the movie proper–both times teams of commandos are shown, the teams are all men, despite the fact that Delevingne’s presence means that in this future, women clearly serve in front-line combat roles. At least, one woman does. On the space station that is the setting for most of the film, the women are entirely in minor supporting roles on the command deck. There’s little indication that women can rise to high-ranking positions.
Finally, there’s the really big elephant in the room: the relationship between Valerian and Delevingne’s Laureline. When we first meet them, Valerian is sitting on a holodeck beach when Laureline joins him–a relatively transparent moment that’s nothing more than an excuse for her to be in the above-mentioned skimpy bathing suit. He pulls her to him and they appear to be ready to make out when the ship interrupts them and forces them back to work. It’s at this point, though–mere minutes into us meeting them–that we find that the relationship is entirely one-sided; Valerian wants something for her that she doesn’t want from him. And we learn that she isn’t interested in him because he’s a well-known womanizer. But then we discover that this isn’t actually a partnership: he’s Major Valerian, while she’s Sergeant Laureline. He’s in a clear position of power over her, and he constantly makes remarks about her physical appearance, constantly flirts with her, and constantly asks her out. At one point, he informs her–informs, not asks–that once the current mission is over he is going to get some leave time and they are going to go off to a beach world. This isn’t a fun, flirty relationship. It’s sexual harassment, plain and simple. And that might almost be OK if the movie chose to address it as such, but it doesn’t. In Besson’s eyes, what is happening is playful flirtation between his two main characters. It’s supposed to be the movie’s love story. And that is, in a word, gross.
5. Is it worth seeing in 3D?
This is normally the part where I say that the extra cost of 3D isn’t worth while, but, here, the base cost of 2D isn’t worth it, either. I might suggest that you wait and see it when it comes to Netflix or whatever, but even then I have no doubt you can find better ways to spend 137 minutes–like watching your grass grow.
6. When’s a good time to go to the bathroom?
With a plot this weak, you can go whenever the urge hits you. I promise you can miss any random few minutes of the movie and not be at all lost when you return. The only real risk of going to the bathroom is that you may well decide that it simply isn’t worth returning to the movie.
7. Is there anything after the credits?
Thankfully, no. As soon as the credits start, you can flee the theater. The credits are about 7 minutes long, so, really, the movie is only 2 hours and 10 minutes of your life you aren’t getting back. Which is something, I guess.
Thanks to GeekMom Corrina Lawson for help in discussing some of the issues with the movie, particularly the part about Rihanna’s character.