WARNING: THIS POST IS GOING TO SPOIL THE EVERLOVING SHIT OUT OF VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS.
Last week we talked about how Spider-Man: Homecoming stuck the landing when it came to the three-act structure (which I tend to believe works really well for films and short stories).
As a quick recap: in Spider-Man, there were three thematically distinct beats (acts) that were linked together by Spidey’s internal movement towards being recognizable as Queens’s friendly neighborhood superhero. This follows my (again, mostly intuitive) understanding of the three-act structure, which rolls thusly:
External Action (shit blowing up)
- Shit goes wrong.
- Shit gets worse.
- Shit gets fixed.
Internal Action (character development, optional)
- A failing in the protagonist’s character is discovered. This may cause shit to go wrong in the first place.
- The failing remains unacknowledged and probably makes shit worse.
- The failing is resolved, which may well happen to help fix shit.
You’re about to find out why the internal action road map, while optional, comes highly recommended. Because now that we’ve had our recap of last week, we’re turning our attention to…
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Here is our example that waffles mightily on the subject of the three-act structure and pays the price in pacing and audience engagement. A breakdown of how things move in Valerian:
External Action (shit blowing up)
- After Valerian has an Important Dream, Laureline and Valerian hit up the transdimensional Big Market to steal a converter, a bearded lizard-dragon-cat that is the last of its kind and becomes the film’s MacGuffin.
- Upon returning, Valerian and Laureline are assigned to the Commander of Alpha (the titular City) as security. This promptly goes pear-shaped and Laureline has to take off to save Valerian’s ass and rescue the Commander.
- Laureline tromps through the grosser parts of Alpha in order to get a giant psychic jellyfish that will tell her where Valerian wound up, then goes and finds him.
- Upon finding Valerian, Laureline is immediately caught by alien fly-fishers. Valerian tromps through the seedier parts of Alpha in order to infiltrate the palace of an alien monarch about to have Laureline’s skull for din-din and save her bacon.
- Laureline and Valerian finally make it to the center of Alpha and discover that the Important Dream was always leading them (or at least Valerian) there. They proceed to save the day when it’s revealed that the Commander is a war criminal and that the pretty, iridescent aliens are actually the good guys.
So that’s five acts, right there. I figure some of you out there are saying that I’m being unfair, because hey, I gave Spider-Man only three acts even though there was often more than one main action sequence to an act. The primary difference is that those action sequences were linked by Spidey’s characterization, so there was a method to divide the action according to Spidey’s orientation in his character arc. With Valerian… Not so much.
Internal Action (character development)
- Valerian wants Laureline to marry him*, but she’ll have none of it because he still has his “playlist”, which appears to be a high-tech Little Black Book of sorts.
- Valerian decides, mostly out of nowhere, to Do What’s Right instead of Following Orders and also to delete his playlist. This combination of selfless acts earns him Laureline poontang.
* This is probably the most mid-century sci-fi thing that I’ve seen in a modern film ever. Heinlein would be proud.
Setting aside the wildly troubling issue that Not Being a Douche gets Valerian a red-carpet invite to Laureline’s vaginal canal**, character development is pretty thin on the ground. Were we to divide the external action into acts based on characterization, we’d wind up with one Big McLargeHuge act one and a very, very tiny act two. Mostly because Valerian doesn’t so much have a character arc as he has a character obtuse angle.
** I meant that to sound as gross as it made me feel.
I’m not counting Valerian’s conversation about showing vulnerability with Bubble (the shapeshifting alien glampod played by Rihanna who is killed almost as soon as her usefulness to the story is over because she probably would’ve stolen the rest of the film) as a character beat. This is mostly because it winds up being entirely irrelevant to any direction that Valerian’s character takes. The endgame of the film for Valerian is not about displaying vulnerability, it’s about not being a toolbox to the pretty, harmless aliens.
The end result of all this—the frantic leaping from one setpiece action sequence/eye candy thrill-ride to another and the lack of a solid character throughline—means that the audience winds up with a sense that the film is treading water. It’s difficult to meter out progress in a story when there is a lot of stuff going on but no connection to the characters to tell us where we’re out in the journey.
As soon as Tony takes the Stark-tech suit from Peter in Spider-Man, you know that Peter is not gonna stay off the heroing horse. You know that he’s about to go it alone in his homemade suit, and he’s gonna rock it because the defining trait of Peter Parker is that his heart is always in the right place. He’ll do the right thing even if he’s underequipped and outgunned.
With Valerian and Laureline, each of the individual “acts” comes to a close and the audience, having seen no real progress toward the film’s endgame outside of the Big Market sequence, is left wondering if this next act is gonna be the grand finale, or if something else suitably bizarre is going to happen again and send us off on another tangent.
So, in brief, my thoughts on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are as follows: stronger character arcs and fewer bizarre sidequests could have made this film a rock-solid space opera ride to remember. But instead, we have a muddled, confused narrative with flat characters that just doesn’t quite come together to be as awesome as it could’ve been.
And that is why, when all else fails, you should stick to the three-act structure for short fiction.
How about you guys? Any thoughts on Valerian or Spider-Man? Anything you wanna call bullshit on? Let me know in the comments! And in the meantime, enjoy a still of Rihanna as Bubble.