In Defence of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This is not a great way of beginning a review, but I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about this film. I don’t have anything insightful or witty to add to the plethora of reviews. I just feel it’s important for someone to say something positive about this epic, beautiful, engrossing film. There are a lot of negative reviews out there, with the film gaining only 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 2 out of 5 stars in both The Guardian and Empire. And it looks like these have had a negative impact on the public—according to Nathan Rabin, as of 4th August, the film had only made back a fifth of its $177m budget in box office takings worldwide. And I think that’s immensely sad, because I absolutely loved this film.

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It’s epic, in every sense. Its scope is huge, conceptually and physically. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special operatives charged with preserving order across the 28th century universe. They travel across galaxies to prevent a threat deep in Alpha—a city that is an amalgamation of a thousand planets, where different species have converged to share knowledge and culture. This alone should be praised as a wonderful celebration of diversity in a time of fear of difference. We visit an inter-dimensional market, see a shape-shifting burlesque show, get suckered in by a telepathic jellyfish. If it sounds mad, that’s because it absolutely is. Mad and beautiful. An alien race with pearl-like skin. Treacherous luminous butterflies. Valerian catapulting through dozens of Alpha regions in the blink of an eye.

Valerian pearl people

Is the pacing a little off? Yes. On one occasion the tension is cranked up to breaking point, only to be interrupted by Rihanna playing a shape-shifting dancer—Cabaret plus aliens. Meanwhile Laureline is in the middle of a life-threatening situation that is more farcical than frightening. And after this quick burlesque/comedy break, we’re back to ratcheting up the tension. But that scene with Rihanna is just mesmerising, so I forgave Luc Besson immediately.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Am I invested in the romance? No. And maybe the reviews are right, the chemistry leaves something to be desired and the romantic dialogue is as corny as can be. But I wasn’t there for romance. I was there for two people uncovering a genocidal plot and saving multiple alien races across the universe.

Why does every film have to be something slick, to get us straight from point A to point B? Why does it have to be polished within an inch of its life, spoonfeeding the audience with the requisite action and romance sequences? I often had no idea where Valerian was taking me, but I was totally happy to strap in for the ride. Isn’t there something to be said for sitting back and enjoying a breathtaking, imaginative, well-crafted spectacle with the most mind-blowing world-building we’ve seen in a long time? Robbie Collin has put it far better than I could: “Valerian is a film to wallow in, not follow, and if you’re tuned to its extra-terrestrial wavelength, you wouldn’t cut a second.” Let’s learn to wallow a bit more.


Circular Narratives and Linguistic Relativism in Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’

When twelve alien vessels arrive on Earth, the world reacts with confusion, violence, and fear. The US military recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help comprehend the aliens’ language, and attempt to ask the question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

I am so blown away by this film that I barely know what to say. Every aspect of it has been exquisitely crafted. The otherworldly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is bookended by Max Richter’s gut-wrenching ‘On the Nature of Daylight’. The visual effects are stunning, with everything taking on a surreal beauty, including the Heptapod aliens themselves and the vessels they arrive in. While the depiction of the world-wide chaos prompted by the arrival of the “shells” is entirely believable, the focus is instead on a group of linguists and scientists attempting to decrypt the alien language of one of the twelve vessels. Amy Adams is outstanding as linguist Dr Louise Banks whose understanding of the world is being literally rewritten as the film progresses. And this leads me to probably the most interesting thing about the film. Essential to its narrative is the concept of linguistic relativism, a theory evolved from the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It states that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s cognition (rather than a person’s cognition dictating the structure of the language). The most famous example of this comes from anthropologist Franz Boas, who suggested that because the Inuit language has so many different words for snow, Eskimos may see snow, even think about snow, differently to the rest of the world.

Linguistic relativism also forms the backbone of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (from ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four)


Amy Adams in Arrival. Image © 2016 Paramount Pictures

As Dr Louise Banks learns the written language of the Heptapods, as she begins to dream in it, think in it, communicate using it, her conscious and subconscious begin to resemble those of the Heptapods. The written language itself, known as “Heptapod B” (the spoken language is “Heptapod A”), is created from something resembling squid ink that takes on a 3-dimensional form suspended in space. (Visually, the designers were inspired by Tolkien’s Elvish.) The original story on which the film is based calls it, “fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice.” Its circular form reflects the fact that Heptapod B is non-linear; the Heptapods do not view beginnings and endings in the same way an English-speaker would (in this way it is visually and thematically reminiscent of Ouroboros, the tail-eating snake). When using Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. A single symbol cannot be changed without changing the meaning of the entire sentence. The circular writing is reflected in the narrative of the film, both thematically and practically. The first shot of the opening sequence and the first shot of the closing sequence are nearly identical, and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ begins and ends the film.

The film goes to great lengths to be scientifically accurate, and the production consulted scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram and linguist Jessica Coon to ensure all terminology and references were sound. But while it is intellectually stimulating, and informative without being patronising, it is also profoundly moving. It manages to combine far-reaching concepts about extra-terrestrial life, the nature of time and consciousness, with a deep understanding of love, family, and human nature.