The critical consensus for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets praises the films’s visuals but furrows its brow at the lackluster lackluster story and writing. This criticism describe most new sci-fi movies, but it also reveals the problem: Elaborate — or “good” — special and visual effects are undermining the whole point of sci-fi movies like Valerian — and the latest Planet of the Apes movie. Both would have worked better with cheesy special effects.
Despite their huge differences, War for the Planet of the Apes and Valerian share the same flaw: The meticulous attention to convincing special effects is jarringly mismatched with the tone of the source material. In John Baxter’s Science Fiction in the Cinema, he points out that even though the original Planet of the Apes was a a fairly good sci-fi movie for its time, it fundamentally misunderstood the parody and social satire elements at the core of the original Pierre Boulle novel. The movie missed what should have been the obvious point that a future Earth ruled by super-intelligent apes is a bonkers premise unless it’s in service of a deeper point about our own world. The original Apes took the book way too seriously, but the cheesiness of the special effects — not to mention Charlton Heston’s memorably over-the-top performance — saved the movie from itself, lending the movie an absurdity that contrasted with with the heavy tone of the original five films. The book’s book’s satirical tone was preserved, almost by accident.
But that’s out the window these days. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar looks utterly convincing as a real ape, and the grim tone of the newer film obliterates any chance at recognizing Boulle’s tongue-in-cheek symbolism. Like its predecessors Rise and Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes can be a pretty good movie, but the great special effects mean the assured direction and strong performances are in service of a depressingly literal premise: “What if, like, humans were losing a war to really smart apes?” That’s not to say the movie doesn’t attempt deeper themes, but there’s less reason for viewers to go looking for them when the effects make it to so easy to get lost in the spectacle. Maybe modern audiences would reject as too silly a movie that kept actors in ape suits, but that’s just an argument for making the presentation even more ridiculous to keep the underlying satire intact. Imagine, for instance, the Apes franchise as a series of puppet films helmed by Charlie Kaufman, a la Anomalisa.
On the other end of the seriousness seriousness spectrum is Valerian. Certainly the special effects aren’t as “realistic” as those in those in Apes, but their elaborateness also destroys any possibility for the film to bring out what made the source material compelling. Though the original Valerian comic series (usually titled Valerian and Laureline) also had elements of social satire, its primary enduring quality is the kitschy nature of the comic strips themselves. Luc Besson’s adaptation gets the source material half-right: The characters of Valerian and Laureline are utterly hollow, unrealistic, vapid, and cartoonish, just like they are in the comics. But, bizarrely, he juxtaposes these archetypal cornballs with aggressively modern visual effects, effects that lack any unique style and make you feel like you could be watching any generic sci-fi movie.
The film’s alien vistas and various creatures look like leftovers from either Avatar or the Guardians of the Galaxy. In other words, the starship chases and monster battles all assert that you should watch the movie as legitimate sci-fi spectacle, while the plot, acting and writing seem like a cheap comic book.
Even if Besson doesn’t want viewers to take Valerian seriously in the same way director Matt Reeves wants audiences to with Apes, the big-budget effects are intended to create a fully-realized universe audiences can lose themselves in. But the intentionally wooden characters and schlocky dialogue break that suspension of disbelief. What if Valerian had employed self-aware corny effects like funny sea-creatures in The Life Aquatic? Wouldn’t these spaceships be more fun — and more in keeping with what Besson is trying to do with the heroes — if we could see the strings holding up a plastic model?
In Stanislaw Lem’s essay “Science Fiction, a Hopeless Case, With Exceptions,” the Solaris author asserts that primary pitfall with most sci-fi writing is that it tries to “elevate kitsch out of the gutter.” This summer’s big budget cinematic adaptation of Power Rangers typifies this mistake. A slick-looking version of Power Rangers, featuring characters just as flat as the original shows, misses the point. Unless the pathos of these characters is going to be deepened, there’s no reason to throw them in Megazords that cost millions of dollars when a cheap plastic model would have created the same emotional effect.
Defenders of Valerian will probably argue the exciting visuals of the film compensate for its obvious failings at having real writing or story. Or worse, they’ll say that it the film is intentionally made this way it, that the dialogue is supposed to be bad even though the effects are meant to be good. (This defense was floated when the Star Wars prequels came out. It didn’t stick then either.) But all that just concedes Valerian doesn’t know what it wants to be. Consider the 1960s cult classic Barbarella, which like Valerian was adapted from a French science fiction comic. Unlike Valerian, it has wit, style, and visual effects that are perfectly aligned with its kitschy tone. Thankfully, no one has remade Barbarella with contemporary “awesome” special effects. And if we’re lucky, no one ever will.
Not all science fiction films should have bad special effects. 2001 still looks great and its effects fit its tone. Same with Blade Runner. Or Gravity. Or District 9. Or Ex Machina. Even movies that don’t aspire to the same kind of depth, like Guardians of the Galaxy or the recent Star Trek reboots, are at least committed to creating characters and dialogue that are consistent with the effects’ sense of fun, larger-than-life spectacle. But if the sci-fi story the film is inherently a joke — or satire — then the spaceships, monsters and monkeys should convey that joke. Barbarella director Roger Vadim understood this. Luc Besson should take lessons.
Valerian and War for the Planet of the Apes are out now in wide theatrical release.