4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“It’s our mission that doesn’t make sense” — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Debuting in a 1967 issue of Pilote magazine in France, the “Valérian et Laureline” science fiction adventures written by Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières became an immediate hit in Europe. Chronicling the adventures of square-jawed spatio-temporal agent Valérian and his partner Laureline—a French peasant from the 11th century who travels to the future with Valérian—the stories continued until 2010.

The stories inspired an animated series in 2007, and ten years after that, Luc Besson gave us a feature film version.

The comic book stories had Valérian and Laureline travelling through time as well as space, under the auspices of the Spatio-Temporal Agency. Once time travel became a reality in the 28th century, the agency was formed to stop people from messing with the timelines.

This enabled Mézières to draw many different times and places, as well as a very lived-in future world filled with dozens of aliens. (The “Valérian et Laureline” comic art was a major influence on the visual design of Star Wars.) After Galaxity, the capital of the Terran Empire, disappeared in a temporal paradox, Valérian and Laureline became freelance agents, while trying to find their lost home.

The notion of doing a film based on the comics was first brought to the attention of Luc Besson, long a fan of the comics, when he hired Mézières to work on The Fifth Element. According to an interview with Besson in Deadline, the artist asked the director, “Why are you doing this shitty film? Why you don’t do Valérian?”

Besson didn’t seriously consider it at the time, because technology in 1997 wasn’t, he felt, up to the task of portraying all the alien creatures. By the time James Cameron’s Avatar came out in 2009, Besson realized that he could do it.

It took another eight years for it to make it to the screen, quickly becoming the most expensive film in French history.

Dane DeHaan (last seen in this rewatch in Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Cara Delevingne (last seen in this rewatch in Suicide Squad) were cast as Valerian and Laureline. Besson dispensed entirely with the time-travel element, instead having the two leads be military agents of the 28th-century United Human Federation, with Laureline’s past as a French peasant removed as well.

The rest of the cast includes Clive Owen (last seen in this rewatch in Sin City), Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Alain Chabat, Sam Spruell, Sasha Luss, the voices of John Goodman and Elizabeth Debicki, and a brief cameo by Rutger Hauer (also last seen in this rewatch in Sin City). In addition, several directors and writers with whom Besson has worked over the years made cameos as captains of Alpha who welcomed alien species aboard.

The movie was no kind of hit, and a sequel seems unlikely, though Besson keeps saying he wants to do one.

 

“I’d rather that you took me somewhere other than a giant trash can”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Written and directed by Luc Besson
Produced by Virginie Besson-Silla
Original release date: July 17, 2017

Screenshot: EuropaCorp

We get an overview of the future history of space travel, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in the 1970s and the International Space Station in the 2000s, going to first contact with alien life in the 22nd century, with the ISS renamed Alpha Station and regularly added on to, until it was too big to remain safely in orbit. So they sent it out into the galaxy because reasons.

Four hundred years later, and we look in on a pleasant alien world where everyone seems happy. We mostly see it from the POV of a woman living on a beach, where they harvest balls of energy and there are cute lizard-like animals that eat matter and then excrete multiples of the same thing. So, for example, if you feed it a diamond, it then poops lots of diamonds.

The world is then destroyed when it’s caught in the crossfire of a space battle—

—and then Major Valerian wakes up from a dream. Turns out, he dreamt all that about the alien world, and didn’t recognize the world or the species living on it.

Valerian appears to have been sleeping on a beach, but it’s actually an illusion created by their ship, Alex. Valerian steps out of the fake beach and tries to convince his partner, Sergeant Laureline, to marry him. Laureline wants no part of marrying him due to his lengthy history of brief relationships with coworkers.

Their new assignment is to retrieve a Mül converter—which is one of the lizard-like animals from Valerian’s dream. It’s in the hands of a criminal named Igon Siruss. Igon works on a planet where the “big market” is in another dimension. Using a device that allows his weapon to be out of phase with the dimension, Valerian sneaks into the transaction Igon is having—with, it turns out, aliens who look like the ones from Valerian’s dream.

Valerian succeeds, barely, in taking both the converter and the tiny energy ball the aliens were using as payment. Laureline saves him by fixing his damaged dimensional shifter thingie. Igon sends a weapon-proof monster after them and their backup team. Said backup team is all killed by the monster while Valerian and Laureline manage to barely get away, without a single thought given to the four guys who just died protecting them.

They travel to Alpha Station, which is now huge, and which has representatives from all known worlds living there. We learn this when Valerian and Laureline ask Alex for information about the station, even though it’s their headquarters and they’ve been there a million times. Nonetheless, the computer provides lengthy and detailed exposition about this station in the clumsiest manner possible. (Keep in mind that a professional screenwriter of more than 30 years’ standing wrote this, and it was his passion project.)

Alpha has its own problems: there’s a dead zone, filled with radiation, and it’s expanding. Commander Arün Filitt orders Valerian and Laureline to protect him while he speaks to delegates from all the various worlds.

In the midst of that meeting, the station is attacked, with Filitt kidnapped. (They think he has the converter, but actually Laureline is holding it.) The attackers are more of the aliens from Valerian’s dream. Valerian goes after them, chasing them into the dead zone, where Laureline and the remaining military lose track of him. General Okto Bar, now in charge with Filitt kidnapped, orders Laureline placed under arrest so he doesn’t lose both his best agents in one day.

Screenshot: EuropaCorp

Laureline escapes custody with appalling ease and goes after Valerian. She finds him unconscious, having crashed his flyer in the dead zone. After she revives him, she is distracted by a butterfly. Despite having been given exhaustive exposition about Alpha, Laureline apparently doesn’t know that the butterflies will kidnap you if you touch them. She’s kidnapped by one and taken to the Boulan Bathors. They won’t let aliens in (who aren’t kidnapped, in any case), so Valerian recruits Bubble, a shapechanging exotic dancer, promising her freedom and a proper government ID if she helps him. She reluctantly agrees—she considers herself an artist and hates the idea of playing a part she hasn’t rehearsed.

General Bar is confused by the fact that Filitt has been torturing an alien prisoner, and is also appalled to see that Mül is classified above his rank. (Valerian discovered the same thing earlier.) Bar gets the ministry to declassify it for him, and learns that Mül was destroyed thirty years ago during a war. But it’s officially listed as uninhabited.

Meanwhile, Laureline has become a handmaiden for the emperor of the Boulan Bathors. As she’s serving the emperor, Valerian and Bubble arrive to rescue her, and they escape through a garbage chute. Bubble is wounded in the fight, and dies, urging Valerian to love Laureline fiercely.

They go deeper into the dead zone, only to discover that it isn’t dead, but plenty breathable. They find Filitt a prisoner of the aliens from the dream, who are called the Pearl. Their princess, before she died during the attack, sent a telepathic message through time and space, which wound up in Valerian’s head. The Pearl on Alpha are the last survivors, as they took refuge in a crashed ship that survived the destruction of Mül, Eventually, they wound up in Alpha.

They need the converter and the energy sphere to power the ship, which they’ve repaired, and go to a world they can terraform to suit their needs.

Filitt admits to his role in the near-genocide of the Pearl. At first he tries to pawn it off as a mistake, that the scanners detected no life on the world, but eventually Filitt confesses to it all. He had to end the war, and if he admitted that he wiped out most of a species, Earth would have been kicked out of Alpha, and it would have destroyed the Federation’s economy.

Valerian knocks Filitt out and gives them the converter. Laureline wants him to give them the energy sphere, too, and he won’t at first, because it’s evidence, but he gives in eventually.

Bar has sent soldiers after Valerian and Laureline, but Filitt also had a backup plan: his personal guard of K-Tron robot soldiers, who attack both the Pearl and Bar’s people and Valerian and Laureline. They’re ultimately defeated, Filitt is arrested, and the Pearl are able to leave Alpha in their ship to find their new world. Valerian and Laureline are left adrift in another ship, and Laureline finally gives Valerian a maybe to his marriage proposal as they await rescue.

 

“A soldier will always choose death over humiliation”

Screenshot: EuropaCorp

This was one of the worst-reviewed movies of 2017, which is why I never saw it until I got to it this week.

The bad reviews, if anything, undersold it.

This isn’t the worst movie I’ve done in this rewatch—the existence of Man-Thing and Son of the Mask and Justice League of America and the 1990 Captain America and the 1994 Fantastic Four and several others make that impossible—but it’s definitely in the conversation.

It’s amusing that the release of Avatar is one of the things that prompted Luc Besson to go ahead with Valerian, and both movies are pretty much the same: beautiful, gorgeous visuals done in by mediocre acting and a truly dreadful script.

The script honestly feels like it wandered in from 1967, when the comic debuted, from the sexism to the simplistic dialogue to the clunky exposition. Besson can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not he’s writing the later version of Valerian who goes his own way and is a bit of a rogueish maverick or the earlier version who always meticulously followed orders no matter what. Laureline, meanwhile, having been stripped of her comics origin, is instead maddeningly inconsistent, going from ultra-competent and by-the-book to being stupid and hating people who follow the rules.

The running time of this movie is two and a quarter hours, and you feel every excruciating nanosecond of it. I felt like I’d been watching it for several weeks when I checked to see that I was only halfway through.

It’s too bad because, like Avatar, it’s a visual feast. Besson and his set designers and CGI folks and cinematographers all did amazing work creating a future universe. The Pearl in particular are beautifully realized aliens, and the opening sequence where humans meet up with various aliens is a ton of fun.

The entire sequence on Mül is also a joy, as the Pearl seem to be genuinely happy people whose lives we get a lovely entrée into. They’re just different enough to be weird, but familiar enough to be happily recognizable—and then they’re almost all killed, our POV character being one of the deaths.

At that point, we get saddled with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne for the rest of the film, which goes straight into the toilet.

I cannot find a single good thing to say about either DeHaan’s or Delevingne’s work in this movie. They come across as bored teenagers who don’t actually want to be acting in a movie today, but fine, we’ll do it, I guess. At no point are they even remotely convincing as professional soldiers. (Hell, at no point are they even remotely convincing as professional actors.) Their line deliveries are flat, not aided by Besson’s mediocre dialogue, their action sequences are labored and unconvincing, and their chemistry is almost comically nonexistent. Seriously, these two are about as romantic as a fried egg and a cactus, and either would’ve been better casting choices. These two are now the gold standard (tin standard?) for a chemistry-free romantic coupling on screen, leaving Chakotay-Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager and James Bond-Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough in the dust.

It really is Avatar all over again: a triumph of world-building and cinematography over writing and acting. The former is glorious; the latter is DOA.

 

Next week, one last dip into the 20th century, as we look back at 1984’s adaptation of Sheena.

Keith R.A. DeCandido urges everyone to buy his newest book Alien: Isolation, which is now available in audio from Blackstone Audio (read by Sarah Mollo-Christiansen), as well as paperback and eBook.

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