Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: why you need to go see this movie now

ihanna as Bubble in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Rihanna as Bubble in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

First of all, don’t be an American when you watch this film. Be a citizen of the Universe. A lot of critics are already hating on the most beautiful, stunning and original adaptation of a French-Belgian graphic novel ever made…. because they don’t “get” it, and probably never will. I have seen the movie, in 3D, and loved it! I have also read quite a few of the original graphic novels by Pierre Cristin and Jean-Claude Mezieres it was based on. I do “get” it!

This film, for me, is the only “Must-See” film of the year period. Sure we have had Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I loved each of them. I don’t care about Transformers or Apes or Fast / Furious, although I do look forward to seeing Atomic Blonde and The Dark Tower, and am actually kinda lukewarm about the upcoming Star Wars Han Solo flick… But, boys and girls, we have been waiting 50 years for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the vision of a mature French filmmaker with an almost fifty-year-long love affair with the source material, which began in 1967 and ran for 43 years, comprising a collection of 23 volumes. I highly recommend your reading them; and yes, they can be checked out from our magnificent Nashville Public Library system free. Many of the white male (American) critics who are trashing this superb film have their heads up their ‘backside’ so far they can’t connect to the story line in quite a few places, several of which would be major spoilers. Suffice it to say that most of them don’t know the influence that the long-running series has had on past and present day science fiction, and many of them are seeing things that first appeared in Valerian and Laureline which we and they first saw in later projects, esp. Star Wars.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the realization of the dream that fueled the career of one of the most accomplished and visionary filmmakers ever — the legendary Luc Besson. Besson is a hero of mine for many reasons, not the least of which are his free film academy and his ability to bring this $200 million film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, to the screen without a major studio. Thats right, it’s basically the most expensive indie film ever produced, in addition to being the most expensive French film ever produced.

Besson’s financing was made possible due to his reputation and record of making memorable and financially lucrative films. Most recently, you may remember Lucy, the Scarlett Johanssen vehicle that grossed a half-billion dollars. It is one in a long line of his films that generally have a strong female protagonist (and leading lady), going back to The Fifth Element (Milla Jojovich), The Professional (Natalie Portman), and my personal favorite La Femme Nikita.

La Femme Nikita — she alone is one of the most extraordinary characters in modern fiction. When Luc created her and brought her to the silver screen in 1991, he set in motion and released a wave of female heroine shock waves that saw her character become so powerful and resonate in so many ways that (1) an American filmic re-make entitled Point of No Return was made, starring Brigitte Fonda (more about her later); (2) a Canadian TV show was made, La Femme Nikita, staring Peta Wilson and aired in the United States on the USA Network for five seasons; and a ‘reimagined’ version starring Vietnamese Maggie Q (now on ABC’s Designated Survivor with Keifer Sutherland), titled simply Nikita ran on The CW for several seasons.

Laureline is the latest in that line of femme fatales to reach the screen, here portrayed by the stunningly beautiful Cara Delevingne, last seen as June Moon/ The Enchantress in Suicide Squad. One of the sticking points in the new film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is that the graphic novels were titled Valerian and Laureline, always placing Laureline equal to her co-star Valerian. Many other changes for the film from the graphic novel have been made. Her backstory changes her from an 11th Century French peasant girl who encounters Valerian on one of his missions and is recruited to becoming a Spatio-Temporal Agent in the comics. The comics were also based in the 28th Century. Also, beautifully, the origins of the City of a Thousand Planets, known as Point Central in the comics and Alpha in the film, is reframed to make Earth and its 20th / 21st Century space program(s) especially the International Space Station, key to its development. In the film, Laureline is a blonde where original Laureline was a redhead, much more natural for Cara to pull off. What has not changed is her bad-assery, her humor, and her constant deflection of Valerian’s amorous overtures. And her sense of justice and fair treatment of all species.

Some of the gripes I have witnessed amount to a bunch of whining and nit-picking about the apparent lack of chemistry between the two young stars, in addition to the fact that they are very young stars, and their perception about how they should perhaps relate to one another. I told you at the outset to put your American-centric worldview on hold while you experience this film. Don’t expect Valerian and Laureline to behave like 21st Century Americans! That’s not who they are! They are 25th Century Spatio-Temporal Agents.

Another idiotic critique of the film has revolved around those critics’ lack of patience with the pace at which Besson chooses to unpack the central mystery of the film and the route he takes to get us there. In reflection, I see that he made some amazing choices to set up the story, which included nods and homages to many of the characters and storylines across the decades of source material. The denouement, the means he takes to get there, the detours along the way that are actually quite necessary as well as frequently hilarious elements to revealing the core mystery, are elements of a well-told tale, and the payoff is remarkably satisfying.

Some of those critics like to bring Star Wars into the discussion, along with Avatar. Avatar is pivotal, because it’s visual effects were the tipping point at which Besson realized that the level of CGI to fully create aliens and alien environments had been reached, Star Wars notwithstanding. In fact, James Cameron, the director of Avatar, was a fan of Besson’s and had invited him to the set and studios while making Avatar to share his new techniques with him, thus making it possible for Besson to bring Valerian to life.

Another hangup that some critics may have that is fueling their disapproval and negative reviews is the fact that Valerian and Laureline are true heroes, not anti-heroes. Much of today’s genre vehicles are driven by characters who are the ostensible protagonists, but they operate in ways that reek of villainy. And, if not outright villainy, operate in that shady ‘grey area’ of the Han Solo type, to whom unfair comparisons with Valerian are being made. He is a hero! A pure hero, a military / government agent, Major Valerian, much like Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, and his idealism and forthrightness are a breath of fresh air from leads like TV’s mob shill Tony Soprano or drug-dealer Walter White. In fact, his blatant and beautiful Dudley Do-Righteousness brought against Laureline’s previously noted ‘sense of justice and fair treatment of all species’ informs the final outcome of the film.

I said I would get back to Brigitte Fonda. Brigitte’s aunt, Jane Fonda, starred in Barbarella, a classic French film that is much more appropriate to compare Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to. If you have never seen this awesome 1968 film, you really should. It also featured a very strong leading lady. And, yes, it was in production while Valerian and Laureline were being launched. In fact, Barbarella was also another French comic book that pre-dated and partially inspired Valerian and Laureline, so …. Hey, Luc! How about a new Barbarella film next, … please?