Outside of Bible stories and abridged introductions to Shakespeare for kids, I have never been a big fan of the graphic novel. So when I heard that Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets was based ON a graphic novel, I was not impressed.
Valerian is the most expensive indie movie in history (to date). Weighing in at $180 million, the mind boggles when considering that past indie sci fi films like John Sayle’s 1984 cult hit Brother from Another Planet cost $350,000, or that 1985's This Quiet Earth rang in at $1,000,000. Even in 2017 dollars those amounts would, respectively be “only” $824,000 and $2.4 million. And raise hands if you knew George Lucas made the indie sci fi cult classic THX 1138 with Robert Duvall? At $777,000 even today’s money would “only” be a $1.8 million outlay. So indie sci fi, while holding an honored place in film history, has not usually been the beneficiary of a generous budget.
In Valerian, every penny of their massive budget shows up on screen. It is visually spectacular and extremely well written. For example, most sci fis are heavily dependent on overt exposition – from Star Wars background history scrawls to Morgan Freeman’s warning that a bad Mars is about to rise to Linda Hamilton’s description of doom to come in the Terminator movies. And while Valerian is also guilty of this affectation, there is a brilliant sequence which creatively SHOWS how this Alpha City of a Thousand Planets evolved over hundreds of years with a series of simple greeting vignettes but without using a single word of dialogue.
I really recommend this movie and want you to see it so will try hard to NOT GIVE ANY SPOILERS!
Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, author and illustrator of this 43 year old comic book series have molded this intricately woven community of worlds in 21 collected volumes plus short stories and an encyclopedia, so it’s not surprising there is a wealth of information for the screenwriter and lifelong fan of the comic book, Luc Beeson, to pull from. But never does Beeson of Lucy, Fifth Element and Taken fame lean on cliche. The young leads Dane DeHaan (horror-sci fi Chronicle, and the super creepy Life after Beth) who plays Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns and Suicide Squad) who plays his partner Sargeant Laureline are special operatives with the Mission of Defense, assigned to keep order in space. The characters are undercover detectives likely much older than they appear, given their abilities and histories. They stumble upon a mystery during a covert operation to retrieve an “item” of some importance to their superiors and find their loyalties tested, encountering secrets even they did not suspect existed but which will test their skills and their honor.
Kudos to Besson for crafting a compelling, interesting story which relies on strange interplantary involvements which would make Roddenberry jealous and never loses the humanity behind all the colorful fascinating critters. A lot of sci fis succumb to the temptation to rely on the "wow" factor and a lot of action to keep their audience's attention. And in ratcheting up the visuals they spend so much of their budget on effects they forget to spend enough time on a compelling story. Valerian, thankfully, does not suffer from this ailment. The different species are, at once different but believable, not just weird offshoots of the human community. I got as geeked out as any other Star Wars fan over the different species on Tatooine. But the parade of creatures used in Valerian shows how such diversity can really be done properly. And unlike the cantina scene (sorry Lucas) it fits into the plot with a purpose and not primarily just for the “ooh aah” effect of seeing a bunch of aliens.
There are plenty of chase scenes but always with a purpose, often done with humor as well as suspense and creativity. Besson plays with time and spatial dimensions as well as species and futuristic technology to make a world in which the characters at once make us feel comfortable and dazzled at the same time.
DeHaan and Delevingne, while not sizzling with chemistry and without much of a familiar film history, do a good job of portraying believable police partners – evoking an easy manner with each other conveying long familiarity. Clive Owens (Children of Men, Bourne Identity) is always a pleasure as their enigmatic superior officer.
I was very pleased with this sci-fi outing, which was both beautiful and thoughtfully engaging, presenting a story with a fair number of surprises and twists, but never stepping outside of the rules of their universe or blindsiding you with left field solutions or ex-machinas.
And everyone was three dimensional, even those who ultimately are found to be to blame for the problems created genuinely thought they were doing the right thing at the time for the greatest number of people. And most refreshing: Reason, mercy, and morality, not infatuation and force, conquer all or at least guide the necessary decisions.
In the end, I WAS impressed by Valerian. So much so that I am tempted to check out the graphic novels at Kevin’s Paper Heroes – our local comic book guru emporium. And anything that makes me interested in reading a 40 year old graphic novel is pretty darned clever.
MILD CAUTIONS: As young teens are likely a major target demographic, I thought I might give a few warnings – While there are no overt sexual acts, aside from some kissing, the first scene introducing the leads shows them wrestling somewhat sensually in scantily clad bathing suits. Nothing happens, and once you’re past this the rest of the film pretty much has them in space suits and fighting bad guys. In another scene Valerian is walking through a shady part of the city where alien prostitutes speak suggestively to him but he brushes them away. And lastly Bubbles, a shape shifter, does some Fosse style sensual dancing. And there are seven mild profanities.