Valerian and Gender Themes

As you likely know, Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” was released this summer, and audiences and critics largely agreed… it wasn’t that great. The visual effects and imagery of the movie are positively stunning, there’s no denying this, but just about every other element of this film is noticeably flawed. The main characters - Valerian in particular - are not very engaging, their romance even less so, the basic storytelling elements feel uneven in presentation, moments that are either meant to be funny or profound are not properly balanced and there are several moments where the film’s internal logic is badly broken (Who were the humans at war with those 30 years ago? How did the “No Foreigners” species ever establish a settlement in Alpha? Why would Valerian defend his allegiance to a man he literally just fought without question?).

All of this, while bothersome, is not what I want to talk about here. I want to discuss the theme of this movie - primarily the fact that it didn’t really have one, and how amazing the film could have been if it did.

The plot surrounding the Pearls and the background of Bubble’s character could suggest a theme about refugees and the government powers that refuse to help them. Bubble is an undocumented alien with no better option than working as an exotic dancer and the collective identity of the Pearls was erased after their planet was lost as collateral damage of a war in which human authorities were fighting. The problems with this are that Bubble’s character is killed well before the main battle of the movie (probably because Rihanna costs too much), and the corruption resulting in the Pearls’ erasure is attributed to only one character, simplifying things to an uninteresting black-and-white moral framework. Not to mention the fact that a sizable fraction of the movie is dedicated to the main characters getting out of situations that don’t connect to the larger plot, and after they interact with the Pearls, said characters don’t even show up anywhere after the climax. Thus, this theme, if at all intended, is not very strong. But there is another possibility - an interesting and potentially innovative idea that is expressed for just a  moment in a scene leading up to the climax. It has to do with the Pearls and Valerian’s gender identity.

In the scene, there is an expository sequence explaining that when a Pearl - the alien race of refugees appearing throughout the film - dies, they can release their soul which then travels through time and space to take refuge in another life form’s mind until they can be laid to rest. It is revealed that the soul of the Pearls’ princess took the house in Valerian’s mind at the beginning of the movie, to which Laureline mockingly responds, “So you’ve had a girl inside you all this time?” Valerian, of course, gets defensive, this situation is laughed off quickly and the plot marches on.

Imagine what this could have been with a little more thought and attention.

If there was not a joke in this exchange, we could have gotten a moment potentially giving a subtle expression of the fluidity of gender, or how “masculinity” and “femininity” can be extremely vague and unspecific terms that interact with each other in different and confusing ways depending on culture. This could even be strengthened by the fact that the Emperor of the Pearls is voiced by a woman. There’s no other discernable reason for this, given that while the design is similar to that of the Na’vi from “Avatar,” there is at least one Pearl featured in the film voiced by a male actor. We don’t know why this is, and the characters never address it. But why not? There is so much that could have been done.

Granted, this is a complaint I have with a lot of modern science fiction. Why oh why, in a setting full of different worlds and creatures that boast originality and diversity and strives to breach the barriers of human imagination, would there be a consistent gender binary? This seems like something that more authors would be exploring now, but few are, at least in well-known media and movies. Valerian’s plot set up a great opportunity to do so, but it never came to any sort of fruition. The routes this movie could have taken are endless. There could have been alien characters of all different kinds of genders. Bubble can change her appearance with little effort, how and why would she stick to one gender or default to the same suggested biological sex? If there’s a reason, she could say something about it. How is Valerian impacted by the presence of a female spirit is his mind? It happens just before he’s introduced, so how might this have impacted him? Maybe the fact that Laureline didn’t notice that much of a change could play into his suggested identity. Later in the film, when the Pearls’ empress frees the soul of the princess from Valerian’s mind, he reacts with a look of shock, as though he physically felt that loss. How might that have been explored? Even if the creators didn’t want to suggest that their main character could be trans or genderqueer in some form - be a first in Hollywood sci-fi - the topic could have been brought up easily. Since there’s a scene where a tortured male Pearl releases his soul in the same way as the princess, I was at least sure that he would go into the mind of Laureline (for duality and follow-through if nothing else) but that too is never brought up again. This story could have been both innovative and put-together, but instead we see another straight white man start off as an arrogant philandering adventurer and end the movie with him swearing to be faithful to his girlfriend and their making out while the soundtrack plays them off with a song about how “I gotta be a man.” Great.

I won’t pretend the movie is a complete waste of time to see, or that it doesn’t have any other glaring problems and gaps in reasoning (Why cut Laureline’s name from the title? Did they really rip off Steven Universe and think no one would notice?). But I can’t help but feel that this movie, one based on a graphic novel that directly inspired works like Star Wars, could have and should have been more than just beautiful CGI.