Over the weekend I had a chance to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This movie was director Luc Besson’s tribute to a French sci-fi pulp series, Valérian and Laureline, which ran in comic form from 1967 to 2010. And much like Besson’s earlier sci-fi epic, The Fifth Element, it was largely panned and ignored at the box office when it was released. But I suspect Valerian may turn out to have similar staying power as The Fifth Element over time.
(NO SPOILERS HERE)
First of all, because of what it is: Sci-fi from the popular 60s era that gave us Star Trek, inspired the Metal Hurlant graphic magazines (known in the US as Heavy Metal), and from which elements the Star Wars movies were developed. The common elements of mid-20th-century sci-fi—galactic-scale organizations, tons of humanoid and non-humanoid aliens that resemble terrestrial nationalities and animals, easy travel throughout the stars… basically the entire galaxy as an extended Earth—has a palpable hold on fans of science fiction and adventure, a factor that explains the never-ending popularity of Star Trek and Star Wars. (As the cartoon below suggests, quite a bit of Star Wars may have been directly taken from elements introduced in Valerian.) The Fifth Element also encompassed much of those elements (being an homage to Metal Hurlant-style adventures), and though it took time to connect with fans, those elements eventually gained traction and earned it a cult-status.
Secondly, for the story, which has general similarities to The Fifth Element: The heroes are not the impetus of the central plot, but are randomly drawn into it and become major elements of its conclusion; many fairly recognizable plot-points and procedures are intermixed with almost incomprehensibly wild elements; likewise fairly normal characters exist alongside exotic and eccentric characters and aliens; and a healthy touch of humor is there to “humanize” the aliens and sci-fi elements, again, to help ground the overall production. Considering their similar genre roots and Luc Besson’s direction, that’s hardly surprising.
Valerian‘s production is just gorgeous. The movie makes extensive use of exotic intergalactic locales and beautifully-rendered aliens of all kinds to create its multi-leveled and lightly-nuanced universe. The principle aliens around which the story is woven, the Pearls from the planet Mül, are beautiful and, because they are created so lovingly by Besson’s artists, fascinating to watch. In a way, the effect of having so many aliens and exotic locales is that after awhile, the viewer finds themselves accepting all of it: The illusion sells, and you buy in to the entire tableau. Never during my viewing did I ever feel “kicked out” of the illusion by anything I’d seen or heard; it’s that tight. This movie was also filmed in 3-D; though I haven’t seen the 3-D version, I understand it stands up against Avatar as the premiere 3-D experience.
Also, neither movie speaks well of the military. The Fifth Element‘s military were mostly just inept; in Valerian, the military figure more heavily into the story, in a negative way. The heroes of Valerian are part of that military, but they act smarter than most of their commanders, spend most of their time acting independently of those commanders, and basically ignore the orders of their commanders to help save the day.
Valerian and Laureline, themselves, have apparently lost a few years of age compared to the comics; neither of them look much older than twenty, which makes their supposed years that they’ve been partners seem odd, but which certainly will help endear them to the YA audience. Critics have largely slammed Valerian’s constant pursuit of Laureline, but this, too, seems like a nod to YA storylines that tend to be similarly filled with hormones and young love subplots. I can’t say it was particularly endearing, or even convincing, to me… but then, I’m not a fan of YA programs and storylines, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. But I would’ve cast the leads as older, probably around 30, to look more realistic.
So I just chucked it in with the movie’s humor. Pulp sci-fi is always full of humor, and Valerian is no exception. Though it is not as over-the-top as the humor in The Fifth Element, it still shines through and reminds viewers like me of those “good-old days” of poking fun at alien versions of human customs, human-alien interactions and the weird impacts on life that future technology will impose on us.
Probably my favorite element of Valerian is its opening. It starts with real footage from the Apollo-Suyuz mission, in which American and Russian astronauts docked and met in space for the first time, then quickly moves to scenes of astronauts from various nations meeting in space, and gathering their ships together to create a grand space station, Alpha, above Earth. More ships come and come, and more nations join together in space… until one day, a ship arrives that is not from Earth; our first meeting with aliens, who also join Alpha. They are soon joined by other aliens, until Alpha is swollen with ships and alien races, and must relocate out of Earth’s orbit. It’s a very optimistic notion, central to the world of Valerian: That cooperation will be the key to progress. And this is another 60s sci-fi concept that’s still popular in TV and movies, even as people are beginning to see it as an old-fashioned notion today.
Finally, I’ll just say that Valerian is fun: Romps through various exotic locations, non-stop action, cool sci-fi tech, a new alien around every corner, conspiracies, to-hell-with-authority heroes and an explosive ending, make for a trademark 60s pulp-sci-fi style film. Though I prefer serious science fiction, there’s nothing wrong with sci-fi that just lets you put the frontal lobe in a jar, break out the beer and snacks, and have a good time… and this was one of the better times to be had. My wife and I enjoyed it, and I’ll be adding it to my collection.
And maybe next year, someone will bring Perry Rhodan to the big screen…