Valerian Gets A Bad Rap For Being Tonally Unique

Valerian STX Entertainment

Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is getting peppered with bad reviews and poor box office performance. I’m dismayed because although by no means perfect, I found Valerian to be a blast to see and was an incredible breath of fresh air in an industry where one monolithic, snarky, sarcastic tone reigns supreme. Large budget tent poles over the last few years have become increasingly tonally identical. You generally have a protagonist who values a good quip as much as their survival. To do so, they generally have to be sarcastic or aloof enough to convincingly play to the audience, no matter what dire circumstance is happening to them. This tone extends beyond the characters and into the world, where every single protagonist is Chaotic Good.

Tony Stark seems to have started this trend, but Chris Pratt’s Starlord certainly epitomizes it. In all honesty I enjoy both Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’m also becoming exhausted by the ‘Marvel-esque’ tone that has come to dominate big budget films.

One thing that really excited me about Valerian was that the entire universe of the film has a completely on the cuff, genuine tone that had no room for aloof sarcasm. Minor plot spoilers to follow.

This sincerity is best represented by Valerian’s character. Many reviewers seemed to place him in the mold of the aforementioned sarcastic chaotic good lead, but I think this misrepresents his character and the tone of the film entirely. His greatest personal conflict in the film comes at a point where doing something vastly beneficial to the universe goes against the minutia of protocol. He’s torn because he just absolutely loves following protocol, can’t imagine breaking it. He’s a pure Lawful Good hero. To me, this was very exciting because I have trouble thinking of another recent Lawful Good lead. You might say Captain America, but most of his story lines are about breaking the law to do the right thing, like protecting the Winter Soldier. Also, those films are structured where the humor is how naive and innocent he is, a non-sarcastic character in a sarcastic world. With Valerian, it is played completely straight. He isn’t a joke for being torn this way, Laureline treats it as a completely valid problem.

The world of Valerian is one where belief in something isn’t a subject for humor, but completely valid. I think part of why Valerian is struggling is that it is being viewed through the lens that has come to dominate these types of films when it is in fact trying to do something very different. In some ways it reminds me of Speed Racer, a film I prefer to Valerian, but a film that was also savaged on release.

In both films we have protagonists that believe in doing the right thing, the proper way, and are so consumed with their singular passion that they have a sort of comic purity. While I certainly wouldn’t want every film to share this tone, the main point is that it is great to see films attempting a vastly different tone and presentation of world. It is sad to me that if a world fails to be as sarcastic as its audience, then it isn’t accepted.

Despite all this, Valerian has some wildly inventive sequences, great production design, and a stunning opening. I totally agree that the film stumbles a bit in the third act, but honestly so has nearly every recent blockbuster including all but maybe one Marvel movie. It’s too bad that those seem to get a pass when an inventive, independent, non-franchise film seems to be held to a much higher standard than its cousins coming out of the studio think tanks.

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