I watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this week. It is a visual spectacle in every positive sense of the term. I highly suggest you check it out if you want to get re-acquainted with the power of imagination.
Those who read my last movie “review” on Alien: Covenant know that I am not out to convince you that a particular movie is a must-watch. Or that movie X is somehow better than movie Y. In the end, you must make up your own mind.
But Valerian is simply a tour-de-force.
Imagine all the pulpy science fiction tropes of Star Wars done right, with a truly diverse global sensibility. Two leads that have decent chemistry together. Super imaginative worlds that look completely different from one to the next. And jaw-dropping computer graphics, to boot.
This is the film that George Lucas tried and failed to make with The Phantom Menace. The dialogue works. The childlike wonder is omnipresent. The slick-as-hell action sequences and heroics on display. If I were watching Valerian as a child, I would be completely engrossed in it. I would beg my parents to let me watch it every week and buy me the action figures. We have reached a milestone where technology allows us to truly translate the comic book sensibilities of the source material to the big screen.
There is also something very distinctive about Valerian, and not fully Star Wars-ian. The characters are exceedingly polite and say “thank you” to their ship’s computer. (As someone who works on AI and personal assistant experiences, I find that an inspiring vision of the future.) Mind control and virtual reality are a key part of the narrative, lending more to Neuromancer comparisons than anything else. There is no hero’s quest. The female protagonist is strong and capable, even if she does call out for the male protagonist’s name approximately 3,000,000 times over the course of the movie.
I am not sure if Valerian is going to stand the test of time, like Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional or The Fifth Element. But as a spectacle that kept me entertained in my seat, and offered a movie-going alternative to the dreary Dunkirk, it is worth exploring.
As I sat in my movie theater seat and enjoyed everything there was to enjoy about Valerian, I could not help but reflect on the state of films today.
We have reached a stage in cinema’s history where the only worthy reason to watch something in theaters is the concept of spectacle. Spectacle is big-budget, loud, and not practically achievable in a TV series. Spectacle is campy, audacious, and raw entertainment. Spectacle focuses less on plot and more on the visual language of films. For now, films fulfill these criteria and tick off the proper checkboxes.
Think films like the Fast and Furious franchise, or the stylistic Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron. Or even Kill Bill from over a decade ago. I am far less critical of these films’ “faults” today, and more appreciative of what they bring to the table. It is a translation of style and vision to something tangible that we can enjoy for two hours.
And spectacle is not an original concept from me, either. Bret Easton Ellis has been arguing this point for years on his podcast. (I love BEE, by the way, because he is not afraid to go off on long rants and he is always ready to call out the hypocrisy of Hollywood. For all his flaws, BEE is someone who truly loves cinema – and that is more than I can say about 95% of the movie critics out there.) And I completely agree with him. I do not want a cerebral experience anymore when I go to the movies. I want to eat my popcorn and leave the complicated storytelling to a ten-hour Netflix series, instead.
As we become a consumer culture that is always-on and never-off, it is good to be able to watch a contained piece of work that only lasts for two hours. As we grapple with smartphone addiction, it is good to be in a theater where we are not supposed to look at our buzzing devices. There is something old-school and charming and quaint about the movie-going experience that I still wax nostalgic about.
Which brings me to my next point – or perhaps I should say, rant. How long will the movie machinery last? And what does it say about the essence of movies now, if they are two-hour vehicles of spectacle and not much else? I walked out of Valerian and thought about it for a bit. I dedicated myself to writing about it here. But what is the cultural value of the movie? Will anybody look back on it fondly, ten years from now? Have we not gone back to our respective corners of the Web, immediately following the witnessing of “something great”?
The true answers to the questions above are sobering. Things do not have the same lasting value and impact today—because there are more things, period. When my dad introduced me to laser discs in the early nineties and we watched Heat together on a Friday night, that was an event. When he took me to the R-rated cinemas so that I could get scared by a horror feature—and wonder about whether said evil thing was lurking under my bed at night—that was an event. I built up my love of movies from all the exposure and all the memories. I knew who Martin Scorsese was before I turned sixteen. I bought a theater ticket for one for Speed Racer, because I did not know anyone else who wanted to see this film. I was a loner and a weirdo, and I loved my love of movies.
What do kids have now? They have iPads or video games. And I had entertainment devices, too. But what are they reading and watching, and what are they going to remember ten years from now? Are they going to think about the iPhone 8 in their hand, or how their Facebook feed looked like in the month of September 2017? I suppose more entertainment options are good. But what are we, as humans, united by?
I truly do not know. And I am not wringing my hands or throwing in the towel. I know that the generation before us voiced the same complaints. I am trying not to be old. Trying not to shout “get off my lawn” at the new kids who do not stand for the same things I did. The grass is greener on the other side, et cetera. Every generation has its power and its intimacy, and brings its unique value to the table. For example, I cannot multitask for shit compared to the kids nowadays.
All I can say is – enjoy the spectacle of filmmaking. Go see Valerian. And hug your loved ones at night.