“Valerian” vs. “Rogue One”: The Freedom and Slavery of a Science Fiction Franchise
History will remember the first part of the 21st Century as sort of a golden age of science fiction.
The West has aggressively adopted a breadth-first policy of technological innovation, stapling network connectivity and digital society to as many objects, or even concepts, as the venture capital market could conceivably tolerate.
The pattern that we observed back when we were first teaching computers to talk and play chess have held true: the things that that we thought would be very easy for computers to help solve (speech, responsible energy, food and water) have turned out to be very hard. But the things we thought would be very hard (chess, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have turned out to be (relatively speaking) easy. So as technology has marched forward, the “future,” as it were, became an oddly shaped beast. We do in fact live in a science fictional future, just not one that anyone would have ever been paid to write about.
The changing world pushes science fiction in front of it like a glacial moraine. Sci-fi is of course defined by its zeitgeist; indeed, it’s purpose is to mirror it darkly, to let us see the present with a new tint and from a different angle. But until the modern era, sci-fi (and speculative fiction in general) has been a peripheral commentator, heckling us from the balcony of art, at times a deadpan and aloof intellectual skewerer (like Statler), at other times a pulpy reflection-slash-parody of our basest tendencies (like Waldorf).
Now, I would argue, is the time when science fiction has entered into its most profound interrelationship with popular culture. No longer are space adventures and be-caped messiahs strictly the daydreams of the outcast. The connected world has given rise to non-three-space-based “communities” which validate each and every conceivable artistic taste. This validation reinforces and cements once-unpopular literary themes such as science fiction in the popular consciousness, and once there they quickly mimeticize throughout society.
The “carrier signal” of this mimeticization has been the science fiction franchise, begun (arguably) that unseasonably cool May in 1977 when Star Wars taught us to want more than one feature film’s worth of a story from a single science fictional world. We’d had sci-fi films before with fully realized worlds, and we’d had non-film sci-fi worlds that exceeded the dosages of their media (serials, pulp novels, comics), but the idea of multiple feature-length stories set in the same far, far away, long, long ago world was a radical new direction in the application of the language of film to the storytelling concerns of science fiction.
In retrospect, it is difficult to remember a time when the norm for sci-fi action films (and I’m including superhero films in that description) was for them to:
1. introduce characters (and/or entire archetypes),
2. establish the rules of a different world,
3. and then tell a compelling story,
…all inside ninety minutes (oh, and movies were shorter back then too). The existence of a franchise significantly reduces the burden on any one film of the first two requirements, but it also constrains them and, potentially, their ability to contribute to the third.
My thesis is that this is an underappreciated double-edged sword of modern filmmaking, and it’s gotten double-edgier over the past decade. The industrial investment in franchises have allowed them to support some of the best sci-fi storytelling that has ever existed, but at the cost of increasing risk-adverseness of the sources of capital and the potential (or actual, depending on your taste) homogenization of the worlds, creatures, and stories that we are given to explore.
The perfect lens through which to examine this tension is the dialectic between two recent spectacular examples from each side franchise divide.
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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets comes from Luc Besson (of Fifth Element fame) and is based on the long-running French comic book series Valérian and Laureline. The universe in which the film takes place is not familiar to the average moviegoer; there are no expectations to live up to; we have no idea how their world works. We must be taught what is normal before the conflict that drives the plot will be recognized as such.
The story is neither as surrealistically profound as The Fifth Element nor as driven by humor as Guardians of the Galaxy, two films to which Valerian will be inevitably compared and which were, ironically, very much inspired by Valérian and Laureline but which now have the prior claim in the popular consciousness.
But derivative conceptual design elements aside, Valerian is fundamentally about the future. I don’t just mean that it takes place in the future. I mean that like all of the best science fiction, it is trying to predict, explain, warn, or otherwise prophesy about how our world might look if we, as a species, stay alive long enough to see it.
And I happen to think that Valerian does a pretty good job of this. Because it makes no damn sense.
As I’ve written before about the The Fifth Element, the future is not going to just be like-the-present-only-cooler. If our Kurzweilian pattern of “accelerating acceleration” continues, then the more you use extrapolation from the present to predict your future, the less accurate you will be, the surprising twist being that, in this case, more accurate means more cinematic.
I’m not saying to make your sci-fi film as weird as humanly possible, but I am saying that the experience of watching a vision of a possible future should by (my) definition involve a lot of wondering what the hell is THAT thing?! What does that tattoo mean?! Is that hat a fashion statement or the new normal?!
And that subjective experience, of gaping in wonder and bewilderment, is punctured if the film must maintain intertextual ties to other works of art. Such as in a franchise.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the second-highest grossing film of 2016 and it wears its franchise credentials proudly in its title. The story is uncharacteristically narrow and “un-sweeping” for a Star Wars film, and a surprisingly “adult” aesthetic pervades the cinematography, seeming to hover fearfully (and handheldfully) at the edges of grand emotional moments instead of spoon-feeding them to us with close-ups and music.
But it is unmistakably Star Wars. The warring political elements that we have worked so hard to understand over the decades are here, as are the character archetypes that we have evolved enough as a culture to see as intentional archetypes (and not simply recycled characters). Our fidelity to the franchise is rewarded as we sip gratefully on not-so-arcane driblets of lore: “thermal exhaust port”, “Gold Leader”, “it’s a trap”, not to mention the reanimated corpses of dead actors speaking new lines. Entire veins of this film’s intended pleasure would remain unmined if you are not among The Faithful.
No part of the Star Wars universe claims to be about the future. Each one tells you right off the bat that these events take place in the past, or, at least, someone’s past. The events of Rogue One certainly could not have taken place in any past that we know about, and there are no Earth-historical elements that would serve the same purpose as, say, the wigs in Pirates of the Caribbean, or the suits of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., elements which function as mental touchstones for our collective knowledge of some past era. Unless of course you count the world-building elements of the Star Wars Universe itself, which by this point are undeniable historical artifacts, and experiencing them is more likely to give you nostalgia than futureshock.
All that’s to say, Rogue One‘s cinematic purpose is not to describe a possible future, its genre notwithstanding. It must be creatively imagined and visually spectacular, but no more so than a Die Hard or a Predator. The chains that bind it to its franchise prevent it, a priori, from reaching the kind of mind-bending pre-accuracy of prophetic sci-fi like Valerian. Yet those very same chains do significant heavy lifting in terms of world-building, character motivation, and visual short-hand for complex technological or political ideas. The presence and significance of concepts like hyperdrive, the Force, and lightsabers do not need to be explained, because the franchise has already done that work. The movie can better spend those calories on something else instead.
The question is, where do you want your film-calories spent?
So why talk about these two movies in particular? Neither are particular good examples of their respective places on the franchise-alignment spectrum, and both have complicated relationships with the movie-going public.
First, if they may not be the best examples, they are the most recent, and it is the modern trend to these things that I think forms a strong part of the spine to my argument. According to the Flickchart Globals, of the top ten sci-fi action movies from the 2010s, only two are not part of a franchise (Inception, Interstellar). In the 2000s, the number of non-franchise films jumps to six (well, it depends how you want to count the franchise kick-offs of well-known properties like X-Men and Spider-Man). If you go back to the 1990s, that number rises further to eight.*
*(I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see the surprise that happens when you go back to the 1980s. Comment below if you see how it fits into the narrative I’m constructing.)
Remember: these are the global rankings, not the box office figures. The franchise films of this genre aren’t just getting butts in the seats, they’re actually getting better, or at least garnering more love as time goes on. That’s very interesting; it either says something about the culture or how sci-fi storytelling as a craft is evolving, or both.
But in addition to that, these films both have the sense that either one could have gone either way in the franchise department. Give Valerian a cloaked lightning-thrower, a partial sense-of-humor-ectomy, and change its MacGuffin to kyber crystals, and it could easily have become a (shitty) Star Wars film. Invent a new name for Jyn’s father’s organization (say, something eerily innocuous, like “the Intergalactic Council of Progress”), change some uniforms, and make the superweapon a big, I don’t know, rhombohedron, and now you’ve got Rogue One: Anonymous Space Opera. I’m not saying these are good ideas, but you can easily see them getting green-lit in some alternate timeline.
The question that I urge you to ask, both when watching these films and sci-fi films in general, is, where is the fun coming from for you? Is it coming from surprise or from expectations met (or exceeded)? Is it from seeing a world being built from scratch or from seeing my favorite world taken even further than I thought possible?
Not that one is “better” than the other, or “truer,” or “more science fictiony.” It’s just that the ingredients of a certain story and a certain audience member will combine to produce a result that has as much to say about ourselves as it does about the movie or the franchise. The stories that science fiction has to tell have a unique relationship with the imaginations of the audience, and it is in this genre that the tension between big stories that satisfy and small stories that surprise will be played out.
This dialectic (and we are all about dialectics here at Flickchart) offers insight into our personal and collective psychologies which is simply too subtle to be observed in any non-oblique way. Every ticket holder and every era has needs that only science fiction can fulfill. And in every case, we find (or make) the distant worlds that tell us what we need to know about this one.