When style over substance can work

It seems Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is splitting audiences and critics. While everyone agrees it looks fantastic, those who are willing to overlook the straightforward story and -let’s say- perfunctory acting are more entertained than those who are not.


Personally I liked it. The visuals are a triumphant ‘fuck you’ to anyone who’s ever whinged about computer graphics not being as good as practical effects. The only obviously practical special effects in this film are Cara Delevingne’s (Laureline) eyebrows. I treated it like a much more fun version of Avatar: each scene is visually compelling in all sorts of ways, and it’s clear a ton of thought went into the design. This is the zaniest, quirkiest, most compelling film to look at since… well, The Fifth Element. I recommend designer Ben Mauro’s website for a look at his concept art.


Valerian And Laureline writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières reckoned Star Wars looked quite familiar… they might have a point!

It’s based on old French comics which went some way to inspiring a lot of modern science fiction, but now it’s hard to tell which bits came first, and which bits might’ve been inspired in turn by newer things. And because it’s based on comic stories, the plot is easy enough to figure out. But none of that matters to me – Luc Besson’s sense of whimsy and visual style makes it an entirely distinct viewing experience. The opening set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity showing humankind sharing space with itself, and then with all the aliens out there, is fantastically upbeat in a way science fiction hasn’t been for decades. I loved it.


Hello stranger… (via Ben Mauro)

On the down-side, Dane DeHaan (Valerian) doesn’t really act in this film; he speaks his lines without falling over, but without any kind of charisma (a bit like any of Clive Owen’s performances; he’s in this too, using grey hair and wrinkles as a substitute for character). So Valerian is a monumental dick; Laureline is much more fun and should’ve had her name in the title too (as per the source material). Perhaps a Bruce Willis or Gary Oldman could’ve made it soar; perhaps they’d’ve spoiled it.

The only unfortunate aspect for me – which betrays the 1960s origins of this universe – is the attempted romance. If you deleted every line that’s supposed to be romantic from this film, it would be improved immeasurably. Instead of a half-arsed ‘will they won’t they’ subplot (which is an offense to single buttocks), it would work better as simply two co-workers who tolerate each other and give grudging thanks when they take it in turns to rescue each other.

Overall I had a lot of fun with this, but I recognise I’ll probably be in the minority by a long way (kinda like The Phantom Menace, I suppose). It doesn’t play by quite the same rules as Hollywood blockbusters – and for that reason I respect it.


For me, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets joins a long, long line of films whose visual merits far exceed those of their plots, scripts, or acting – and they still make compelling viewing despite this.


Purists will want to see me tarred and feathered for saying this, but my first experience of Fritz Lang’s 1920s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis was the colourised version put together by Georgio Moroder in the 1980s, with a suitably 80’s soundtrack. However you see it, there’s no denying it’s still stunning to watch – using all sorts of model work and practical and optical effects to achieve its look.


Putting together Maria the iconic robot, behind the scenes of Metropolis.

Yet the story is simplistic and sentimental; the characters are broad stereotypes; the acting (as you might expect from a silent film) is overwrought and melodramatic. And you know what? None of that matters in the slightest. It went on to inspire science fiction for decades afterwards – and its imitators went on to inspire further imitations.

A film can look great, have few other merits, and still be influential.



2001: A Space Odyssey begins far from outer space…

Skip forward a few decades (past Forbidden Planet, even) to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It too is a film which has virtually no characterisation, hardly any story to tell, is devoid of charisma, and proceeds at the sluggish pace of that little old lady in the queue in front of you at the post office. Yet, it’s now embedded in pop culture either directly or through countless parodies.

The sun-and-Earth-rise over the moon set to Also Sprach Zarathustra; apes gaining sentience from the black monolith in Africa; the space station and the Blue Danube Waltz; the hamster wheel inside the spaceship Discovery; the glowing red eye of Hal 9000; the trippy star gate; the space-baby at the end. Today, these are iconic. At the time, the film split opinion.


Flash Gordon (1980) is distinctive for its visuals, Queen soundtrack, and BRIAN BLESSED!!!

We can rarely tell which films will end up becoming classics. The 1980 version of Flash Gordon became a fond cult classic among those who took it on its own terms; its gaudiness and carefree throwback to much earlier cinematic styles can put people off; but the sheer style and exuberance can endear it to others.


Likewise, Tron (1982) was visually compelling and its setting inside a computer made it modern and cutting-edge at the time. Critics were split. Its sequel (2010) perhaps relied even more on style than substance, but again it was a relentlessly fascinating world to look at. I don’t know if critics would still be kind to it, but world created for Tron is certainly distinctive and memorable.


Blade Runner is another 1982 film that received a mixed critical reception, but went on to become highly influential and spawn a sequel. The difference between this and, say Tron, is that this was based on a novel. It also relied on the tropes of existing genres (noir detective fiction) to make it more accessible. So while it was immensly stylish, and many of its critics thought it was too slow, others could be inspired by the looks, and ponder upon the questions the film raised about what it means to be human and what one should do with their life.


Pleasantville (1998) is, for me, the perfect use of special effects for storytelling purposes, using colour to distinguish which characters are more liberated than others. (A similar effect was used in Schindler’s List for the girl in the red coat.)

What about those films that were stylish, but weren’t quite so influential?

Sometimes films can have a distinct style, but fail to engage the moviegoing public. Sometimes, they just won’t engage me, either (I’m used to the fact that my opinion often apparently diverges from popular opinion in these matters).


Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004) was a throwback to films and pulp science fiction storytelling from 70 years previously. While I enjoyed the dreamy, art deco-steampunk style, I could see how the script, plot and acting wouldn’t compel people to watch anything else in a similar vein. Even so, it makes good ‘background fodder’ on DVD while I’m working on other stuff.


Avatar (2009) doesn’t appear to have spawned any imitators; perhaps the human (military) aspects were too familiar? Or was the story too obvious and dated? Or maybe the effects could only be appreciated in a cinema, and home viewings just didn’t have the same impact?


Oblivion (2013) includes a very distinctive look – the clean, antiseptic, geometric habitat and vehicles used by Tom Cruise’s character have clearly been carefully thought through. The story is a sparse post-apocalyptic science fiction story, all perfectly consistent – and which also split critics – for whatever reason, it didn’t capture the popular imagination.


I have mixed feelings toward the Wachowskis’ films. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas and The Matrix, but Jupiter Ascending (2015) was a 50/50 coin toss until I saw it. Despite a wonderful visual style, based on concept art by George Hull, it should have been more appealing to me than it actually was. There was something about the performances that was too off-kilter; the story didn’t grab me for whatver reason. I’ve seen it precisely once, and that was enough for me. Likewise, Gravity (2013) was a great experience in the cinema, but I’ve never felt the need to watch it at home.

What all these films have in common is that they’re not sequels or reboots of existing franchises. They are all determined to strike out on their own, and march to the beat of a different drummer. I think this is reason enough to give them some kudos, regardless of whether one likes them or not.

Can a film get by on visuals alone? For the first couple of decades of cinema, they had to.

Why should there be a sense of snobbery about films that lavish all their focus on their looks, rather than plot, script or acting? Surely, there’s room for films which are effectively moving art galleries, alongside theatres or visual novels? Does every film need to hook in an audience emotionally? Do we absolutely have to relate to characters?

Why can’t we just sit back and be entertained by what we see?



4 responses to “When style over substance can work

  1. I think I’m looking forward to seeing it more after reading that – several of your ‘style over substance’ examples are amongst my favourites (I actually just bought the Tron duo!), whereas I’d previously seen this linked to the direness that was Sucker Punch (as well as Jupiter A’s ‘meh’). But then, I do agree: cinema’s about entertainment! 🙂

  2. On the subject of science fiction art, have you seen the display on the square across the road from the Usher Hall, looking at the connection between science fiction illustration and the architecture of the time, over the last 100 years. Worth a quick look if you’re in the area.

    • I haven’t passed that way recently – but I’ll take a look!
      Reminds me of a magazine article I read when I was a kid arguing that a lot of shopping mall architecture resembled space colonies in science fiction concept art – so even though we aren’t living on the moon, we can still get that feeling of being in a [retro-] futuristic world.

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