“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” – (2017, France, 2hrs 17mins – PG13)
Luc Besson takes us on a trip through Space and Time with personal meaning. Those unfamiliar with the “Valerian & Laureline” series of comic books, and other materials referenced in this film, might hopefully find it to be good escapist fare. Good offerings in the Space Opera genre are too rare and having grown up reading them I am just as fond of “Valerian & Laureline” as the director, Luc Besson.
A disclaimer: although I read the comics the film is based on, I read them between 35 to 45 years ago, and my review is based largely on personal recollection.
The characters of the comic book are agents of a Space-Time enforcement agency whose assignments and adventures usually take them back from various pasts between the 20th century and their present of the 28th century. What made the series so appealing was its offering of a bright future embodied in the enlightened Earth capital of Galaxity, following a very bleak period during which Earth was subjected to cataclysmic man made disasters. “The city of shifting waters” depicted a City of New York with streets flooded by rising oceans and vegetation reclaiming buildings in a way that was beautiful and eerily sad, with frames drawing city-scapes at night-time and dusk.
At the time, between the late 1960’s to the mid-70’s, most popular sci-fi was dystopian, from “Soylent Green“, “Planet of the apes“, “THX1138“, “Logan’s run” and many more, making “Valerian & Laureline” so appealing. Truth be told, the series began in a more square-jawed heroic fashion until the introduction of Laureline’s character, an 11th century peasant girl brought back to the future by Valerian after his time-traveler status was uncovered. Once she was introduced, the tone of their adventures took on a more humanistic and humorous quality as her character grew. Writer Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mezieres finally found the missing element to their creation.
Although the albums’ titles usually referenced the locales where the adventure was taking place, it is interesting that it took until 2007 for both characters to finally receive equal mention. This probably led to the film’s title of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, itself inspired in large part by the albums “The Empire of a Thousand Planets” and “ambassador of the shadows”. Where it matters is in the value of Laureline’s character. Valerian was always from the future, a “son of Galaxity”, so to speak. But readers could finally experience these worlds, creatures and futures through Laureline’s eyes. She would be the readers’ stand-in, experiencing all wonders with a contemporary sense of morality and humor. That humanity is largely missing here.
Laureline was affirming the question on many readers’mind: “could I live this far in the future, in the unknown?”. And in the troubled late ’60s into the ’70s, with TV news showing nightly scenes from Vietnam to the carnage wrought by Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, OAS, and on an on, her character offered hope.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” created some confusion from the start. Trailers intended to wow audiences with their visuals were depicting nothing particularly new and failed to answer two basic questions about characters and story: who and what. The source material, which invited contemplation of its richness, should have been subtly hinted at. It was almost immediately clear that Laureline’s character was more evolved, with more depth than Valerian’s. This led to two criticisms directed at the film in several reviews. One had to do with the casting of Dane Dehaan as Valerian, the other with various expressions of confusion regarding the story development. Dane Dehaan is an interesting actor, whom I would follow in future films, having just recently watched “the cure for wellness”. However, he is physically very different from Valerian’s square jawed, sharp featured character, and while Ciara Delevingne’s Laureline turned out better written, both actors come across as teenagers with old eyes. To me they looked like a live version of the group Gorillaz’ animated videos.
Not quite the right look (Gorillaz seen above)…
Luc Besson enjoys writing strong female characters, but even as he matures, they remain fairly two-dimensional objects of desire. Here, this led to a few cringe-worthy moments where Valerian would ask Laureline to marry him, awkward scenes book-ended by some horseplay between the two, at times a bit rough and a definite departure from the playful banter of the comic books. Besson wrote Valerian more as Satyr than Pygmalion. In between these moments would be the “cool action scenes” which, while visually pleasing, did play on well worn notes.
Take Clive Owen’s Commander Fillit character and other military officers, carbon-copies of the soldiers in “the Fifth Element” with their operetta uniforms. As for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Bob Marley’s “Jamming” and the Bee-Gees’ “Staying Alive”, they’re all pretty cool tracks, but unoriginal references for a film intended as the beginning of a franchise which needs to establish itself well outside of the Star Wars universe, or Avatar. There’s much more, but the film deserves its shot: the characters and universes created by Christin and Mezieres are regaining relevance.
I went in thinking the film should have been animated in the style of Jackson and Spielberg’s “the adventures of Tintin”. I still think it would have been a better choice and helped keep the film closer to the source material, but it also needed to be pared down visually. There were only about five other people in the theater that night and once again I find truth in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, you can’t go home again. Not even to an imagined future.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” gets three jellybeans.