We’ve reached a point where, if you can dream it, you can visualize it. It’s just a matter of money. And the amount of money it takes to create fantasy/sci-fi type visuals keeps going down, hence we’re seeing more and more of it. The problem then becomes, just because you can show something, should you?
I suggested back in this post on the Valerian trailer that we may be entering an era of diminishing returns as far as the spectacle aspect of the filmgoing experience. It has been steadily moving in that direction for a long time but it got a shot in the arm thanks to Avatar in 2009 and has accelerated since then.
There is now a whole class of high budget cinema that seems to lean more on visuals than storytelling. Some of these films have been successful in spite of themselves, but a growing number of them have been spectacular bombs. Some recent examples include:
- John Carter of Mars
- Jupiter Ascending
- Gods of Egypt
The common theme here is the conceit that spectacle is enough. And it’s hard to argue that it isn’t when many poor films do so well in the box office. What is it that these films lack that “bad” films that make money don’t? I guess it’s not whether a film is art or not, but whether it is simply capable of providing even the simplest of entertainment value.
They say the #1 sin in showbiz is to bore your audience, and we’ve reached a point where no amount of spectacle in and of itself can hold people’s attention. It does take a certain minimum level of competence to make a big dumb action movie in the Michael Bay mold. Even though I’m not a fan of these movies, I understand how they function at a low-brow level. What they lack in characterization they usually make up in humor. This is a big reason why the three films on the list bombed. They were straight action flicks that were meant to be taken seriously and not tongue-in-cheek.
If you’re going to do a straight “epic” then you have to have your ducks in a row because the bar is high to get audiences to take it seriously. If you’re going to go for the jokes, the jokes better be good.
Now we come to Valerian…
Now, I could load up this blog post with screencaps, but it’s probably better to deliberately avoid visuals to make my point.
Luc Besson is not a filmmaker I particularly like. I am not a fan of The Fifth Element, because the film sort of jumps the shark when Chris Tucker hijacks the film and it becomes some sort of Rocky Horror camp-fest. Valerian does the same thing here. He sets up an epic storyline and by the time he gets to the middle, apparently he loses faith in its own seriousness and introduces Rihanna as a shape-shifting stripper who does a lengthy pole-dance. The film, which is glacially paced as it is, stops dead in its tracks and the tone shifts to camp and even slapstick humor. The weird thing is that her character is more interesting than any others that we’ve met so far. So what does he do with her? Not to issue a spoiler, but let’s just say her screen time is limited.
The problem Besson doesn’t understand is that people’s time and interest is a valuable commodity. You are not entitled to it. You have to earn it. The crucial period is in the first few minutes. If your introduction to the characters is weak, you’re off on the wrong foot as the audience feels sort of like they’re on a bad blind date wondering why they’re wasting their time.
Yes, folks, the two leads in Valerian are not that engaging. They look like brother and sister, actually, so when we see them introduced in some sort of weird state of anti-foreplay, it looks positively incestuous. They are like brother-sister Vogue models with permanent pouts. We don’t really know where they came from, how they earned their exciting jobs…all we know is that he wants to bang her and she’s resisting, and we’re expected to be amused by this.
By the time the plot reaches its conclusion we’re treated to another cardinal sin in filmmaking: telling rather than showing. Our female lead goes on a cringe-inducing monologue about the power of love. This on-the-nose dialogue is becoming epidemic in Hollywood. Actions speak louder than words. We do not need direct moralizing to drive the point home. Guardians 2 also had this sort of on-the-nose dialogue.
But I’ll ignore the storytelling flaws for the moment and go back to the visuals…
There is an element of grotesque excess in the special FX of this film. It’s in no way unique in this regard as films are more and more going in this direction. Doctor Strange had it, and Guardians 2 had it, and even Spider-Man: Homecoming had it to some extent. What “it” is is a more-is-more approach to visual excess. Effects shots are piled upon effects shots to the point of visual overload. These fly-through shots are so brief that all I could do is think of the dollar-signs (or euros) that were required to fill merely a handful of frames before the camera whizzed past. If we can’t even mentally register what we’re seeing, then what value does any of it really have in the first place???
This element of techno-overload is best demonstrated in-universe with these alternate-reality goggles that people put on in order to see things happening in a parallel dimension. This plot element seems to be intended to surf on the VR goggle craze. So there is an element of faddishness to it all. But it helps illustrate, perhaps, Besson’s love-affair with technology. Why would he invest so much into this if he himself were not addicted to the rush of the visuals. So he is, in effect, one of those VR goggle tourists and he is spending hundres of millions of euro in the mistaken belief that others are going to be as impressed as he is.
I’m all into world-building but we learn very little about the actual world beyond the visuals. We find out there was a war, but we don’t know with whom, or why it was fought. We know these two work sort of like special agents, but we don’t know that much about this agency or why they choose to staff it with young Vogue models.
When the film does decide to offer exposition, it does so in such a literal way that it’s campy. A character starts talking about what happened and why, and then the flashback repeats it word for word. This is unnecessary unless it’s an attempt at self-parody, and even so, it’s just not that funny.
I guess there’s no way to review this film without the review itself meandering because that’s how the film itself works. It’s meanders rather than entertains. It really felt four hours long although I think it was only a little over two.
In summary, the only thing really good about this film was the Beatles Because remix, but that has more to do with the Fab Four than anything in the film itself.