‘Valerian’ is great, except for the ridiculous sexism

Alpha. Images courtesy STX Entertainment.

7/10 There’s two things I wanted from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — immerse me in a fun, visually dazzling adventure full of strange creatures and impossible physics, and don’t be shockingly sexist. One out of two is not good enough.

In the 28th century, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are federal officers on Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. After recovering the last surviving member of a species that can replicate any material it consumes, they become caught up in a mystery involving a missing planet, a pearl that could power 10 spaceships and a mysterious, growing dead zone inside the city.

This movie is a big deal. It’s based on Valérian and Laureline, the seminal ’60s French comic book series that inspired Star Wars among many other less famous science fiction enterprises.

It’s also a massive risk. At $209 million, it’s the most expensive movie ever made by a production company not based in the U.S., and a poor showing could leave that studio, EuropaCorp, in tatters. Writer/director/producer Luc Besson, who founded and still owns 44 percent of EuropaCorp, crowdfunded and put up some of his own money to push the budget there, leading some to call it the most expensive indie movie ever made as well.

From the very first scenes, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets delivers on its promises. After a long-form introduction of the idyllic Mül, Valerian and Laureline head up a contraband bust in a market in another dimension. Valerian spends the majority of the sequence stuck in a malfunctioning inter-dimensional box, with an arm in one dimension and the rest of his body in another.

This is the kind of imagination that seems lost from modern productions, even in the age of CGI and superhero movies. When compared to the diverse settings of movies that have endured over the years, everything new that comes out seems to be set in a handful of the same familiar times and places. Valerian transports you somewhere new. I want there to be more movies that do this. I want Valerian to make money, which means I want to recommend this to everyone everywhere.

And then I imagine any kind of feminist viewer seeing this and feel awful.

Valerian also has that weird racial problem that some movies with wide arrays of aliens have, where everyone stays in their own race’s neighborhood and even though there are hundreds of resident species, the ones that get prominently featured all seem to be a thinly veiled stereotype of a real-world ethnicity. This movie particularly features a species of Jews roach-like things that control all banking technology and this trio of Jews short, long-nosed things with devil wings that are constantly trying to scam Lauraline.

The primary subplot is noted playboy Valerian proposing to Laureline, who had rejected his advances until that point. There are several problematic notions baked into this — the general acceptance of Valerian as a sex pest, the idea of sex as a transaction, the idea of commitment as a bargaining chip in that transaction, the list only grows as the movie goes on.

The sin here isn’t the overabundance of sexist concepts, but the underlying assumption that the audience agrees with them. Institutional sexism is a fact of life, and movies don’t have to ignore that. Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond is a famous string of blockbusters that feature a brazenly misogynistic main character but also critically examine that misogyny. Bond’s creepiness is a character flaw that the audience is never asked to just be comfortable with — not in the first couple of movies, at least.

Valerian, on the other hand, wiggles Rhianna in a slutty nurse costume at us, casually mentions she’s basically a sex slave, kills her off in the next scene and tells us not to think about it.

There’s a larger mentality here that has to be understood — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was made for dumb people. For all its prestige, for all of the top-level art it’s associated with, all of the movie’s problems come back to that. There’s plenty of romantic tension between Valerian and Laureline based on their banter and actions through the plot, but Besson’s script has them exposit at length about the nature of their personal relationship and squelch all intrigue or uniqueness. These two have been working together for years, but they still boast to each other about their qualifications for policework for viewers’ convenience instead of just being competent police officers. When the mystery villain is revealed, the next scene is of our heroes yelling accusations and punching him to make sure the audience gets it. Its poor, redundant use of dialogue undermines an otherwise cleverly conveyed plot at every turn.

When movies with an imaginative setting are dumbed down for viewers — and often even when they aren’t — what usually ends up happening is the plot will fall back on classic storytelling points, granting viewers a familiar plot to help guide them through this alien setting. Valerian falls back on the classic plot of boy meets girl, boy sexually harasses girl ceaselessly during work hours until she relents and nobody has a problem with this.

I want so badly to enjoy this movie and I can’t. It’s so wonderful to see it brought to life, but there are so many awful beliefs and assumptions about the audience baked into it. This is not acceptable in 2017. Do better.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and a syndicated columnist with the Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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