I don’t know about you, but I was personally looking forward to Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, for several reasons. I thought Besson’s 2014 film Lucy was an encouraging turn for its wildly uneven director, and I still follow Cara Delevingne on Instagram, but most importantly, I like science fiction and wacky aliens on principle. Part of me liked to imagine that the rest of the country was on the same page. After all, every summer, as the phrase “franchise fatigue” starts to float back up to the top of the Hollywood word cloud, it’s usually accompanied by a common question: Why can’t we have original-story blockbusters anymore? Wasn’t Valerian, which seemed to exude imagination and action and eye candy by the ton, exactly the kind of thing so many people beg for in the same breath that they bemoan the 18th Pirates of the Caribbean installment?
As the weekend’s box office indicates, that thinking might be wrong. It was a rare franchise-free summer weekend, with all three wide-release films being neither sequels, prequels, or spinoffs of an existing property — and the box-office winner, Christopher Nolan’s expensive, almost unanimously well-received Dunkirk, opened somewhere below Cars 3 in the summer 2017 box-office ranks (though still above Transformers: The Last Knight, for those of you silver-lining seekers). Dunkirk had the benefit of a director with a strong and passionate following that would follow him into any near-wordless WWII passion project. It’s not that Besson doesn’t also have his Stateside fans, but Valerian, a film that visiting aliens would probably recognize as looking, smelling, and tasting the most like the kind of thing humans like during the warm months, was a nonstarter.
It’s easy to read Valerian’s failure as disproving the idea that people want original blockbusters and new genre universes to obsess over. It seems that most American viewers are not like me (don’t worry, I’m not learning this for the first time) and don’t necessarily connect the dots between the weird, colorful aliens of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Besson’s latest. Brands speak louder than visual feasts, and at this point, Guardians’ brand is a megaphone. When I happened to catch the Valerian trailer before a packed Friday-night showing among Brooklyn civilians, there were derisive, utterly unenchanted snickers as soon as its promotional bombast had faded. You don’t hear those snickers when Marvel tells you that you’re going to pay money to see a movie about a talking raccoon and a baby tree, and what’s more, you’re going to like it.
I don’t really accept the argument that Valerian flopped because it wasn’t a good movie, and for the purposes of this argument, I’m not talking about its actual cinematic/narrative merits (personally, I found it to be mostly tedious but no less entertaining than, say, Ant-Man). While it could be said to bear aesthetic resemblance, at first glance, to similarly out-there (and wildly successful) visions like Avatar and the Guardians of the Galaxy wing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Valerian actually belongs to what has become a nearly nonexistent subcategory of would-be blockbuster: a (1) wide release; (2) fantasy/sci-fi; (3) non-franchise/first of a franchise. Basically, films of the scale and ambition of a Star Wars or Marvel release without the brand power. (Avatar fits in this category, though my guess is its success bears more resemblance to Dunkirk’s than to The Matrix.) Valerian is, in fact, based on source material, the popular — in France, that is — French comic series Valerian and Laureline, but films like it are effectively “original,” in that they have to teach us a visual language and sensibility we may not be used to. That task has become a huge risk in our familiar, if flagging, franchise landscape. It’s highly likely that, willingly or not, we’ll be comparing these worlds to those that have already bought up the majority of our collective mythological real estate.
It didn’t help that by all appearance, Valerian didn’t have jokes. Sure, there’s some nothing of a Dane DeHaan whisper-smirk about how “time flies when you’re having fun” in the trailer, but lines like that — these sounds-like-a-joke placeholders for wit — simply do not fly in these self-aware times. Never underestimate the power of jokes in selling a huge expensive pile of what I’ll politely call “nerd-ass shit” to the American public. There are two ways to make people feel comfortable about science fiction and fantasy: brand loyalty and humor. Before Marvel had cemented the former, they led strong with the latter in their first outing, 2008’s Iron Man. It worked like a charm: The comics fans got their comics movie, and everyone else could just tell themselves they were seeing an action-packed screwball comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. The canniness of the pitch of that film allowed the franchise to keep the stench of true nerdiness at arm’s length indefinitely.
On that note, I would argue that Valerian’s No. 1 mistake is the casting of its leads, who never would have been headlining a film of this size if Besson didn’t have carte blanche on the most expensive independent production ever. Valerian didn’t fail because of its weirdness, but because it didn’t buffer its weirdness enough, either with humor or massive stars. When it comes down to it, most people are so, so scared of seeing something uncool. Audiences are conditioned to dismiss unfamiliar, nerdy shit, so you’ve got to give them more to work with. You cannot present this multicourse day-glo feast of joke-free nerdiness without someone trustworthy onboard to assure audiences that it’s okay to like it.
And even then, it’s got to be the right trustworthy person. Despite the presence of then-white-hot Channing Tatum, the Wachowskis’ 2015 film Jupiter Ascending was declared a failure before anyone even gave it a chance, all its visual sumptuousness and wackadoo world-building deemed too earnest to give the time of day. (It didn’t help that Tatum, with his weird hybrid goat face, looked lost in the trailers.) Sure, Jupiter Ascending asks a lot of its audience, but it’s as if people forgot about what happened the last time the Wachowskis created a cinematic world from scratch (it was The Matrix) and that even if they are huge and total geeks, they know how to tell a satisfying story. Jupiter is no perfect film, and it suffers a similar lack of confident star power as Valerian, but it has a stronger emotional center and a flat-out better story than Besson’s sprawling creation. But both flopped, and will be compared by people who have seen neither, regardless of how they filled their run time.
I don’t think, though, that the failures of films like Valerian and Jupiter Ascending disprove the idea that American audiences want more original stories. The most successful running franchises are effectively oligarchies, but when we treat them like capitalist success stories that it’s possible to learn something from and replicate, disappointment is inevitable. Unfortunately, the only way to be “the next Star Wars” is to actually be the next Star Wars movie. At this point, the appeal of Star Wars isn’t how it looks or its genre, but its familiarity. Move down out of the $100-million-plus budget range, however, and there’s plenty of evidence that a model exists for profitable original stories — see the smaller-stakes success of Get Out, Girls Trip, and Baby Driver.
When a swing-for-the-fences sci-fi spectacular like Valerian fails to find its audience, though, I do think it disproves one thing: the commonly held belief that we are in the midst of an era where geek culture rules. If geek culture truly ruled, it would be possible to launch a big-budget genre film without an A-lister and a bucket of glib, self-aware jokes, because people would want to see a bunch of weird aliens on principle. We’d have an Ex Machina–grade middle-budget sleeper hit every month, and nerd-ass shit like Jupiter Ascending would have three sequels lined up. The success of comic-book movies and Star Wars has more in common with the success of Disney’s live-action reboots than it does with any genre property, and it’s almost entirely based on the perennial appeal of the familiar and comfortable. So, yes, Valerian is evidence that people are scared of new stories — but maybe they’re more scared of uncoolness, and Valerian did nothing to assuage this anxiety.