Friday, August 4, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets was written and directed by Luc Besson.

Besson is a prolific filmmaker who previously wrote Point Of No Return (the American remake of his own La Femme Nikita!), Kiss Of The Dragon, The Transporter, District B13, Unleashed, Transporter 2, Taken, Transporter 3, District 13: Ultimatum, Colombiana, Taken 2, Brick Mansions, Taken 3 and The Transporter Refueled, among many others.

He wrote and directed La Femme Nikita, Leon The Professional, The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc, The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec and Lucy.

The film's based on the long running French comic series Valerian And Laureline (1967-2010) by Pierre Christin (writer) and Jean-Claude Mezieres (artist).

I've been a fan of the Valerian comic for years, ever since I first discovered it back in the early 1990s. I was especially impressed with the stylized artwork, which was somehow both cartoonish and realistic at the same time. I eagerly bought all the Valerian comics I could find, which was easier said than done back in the dark times before the internet.


Writer/director Luc Besson was also a big fan of the comic, growing up in France as he did. In fact it was a HUGE influence on his 1997 film The Fifth Element, which has a very similar look and tone. There's a reason for that— Besson hired Valerian co-creator and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres as a production designer on the film! Mezieres, along with fellow French comic artist Jean Giraud Moebius, designed all the various props, costumes, ships, aliens and environments for The Fifth Element.


While working on The Fifth Element, Mezieres asked Besson, "Why are you working on this sh*tty film? Why you don't do Valerian?" Besson felt that doing justice to the books was impossible, due to the limits of film technology at the time. When Besson saw James Cameron's Avatar though, he realized it was now possible to film literally anything and began working on scripting and storyboarding.

Unfortunately Besson was so intent on capturing the look and feel of the comic that he dropped the ball when it came to little things like characterization, story and most of all, heart. Visually the film is amazing, but it feels cold and ultimately empty. It's all flash with little or no substance. 

Compare this to the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, which have a similar visual style but are surprisingly warm and emotional. If you didn't choke up a bit when Yondu told Peter Quill he was proud to be his daddy, then you must be dead inside.


Sadly, Valerian and Laureline have no such emotional resonance. The movie's so preoccupied with moving them from one action setpiece to the next that it never takes time to develop them into actual characters. They have about as much depth as the comic pages from which they're adapted.

Valerian also suffers from a wonky story structure. Less than five minutes after Valerian is introduced, he proposes marriage to Laureline, and she turns him down. This is obviously supposed to make the audience care about the characters, but since we have absolutely no idea who they are or what they're like, Laureline's denial means absolutely nothing. It would have made infinitely more sense to let us spend the film getting to know the characters, and THEN have Valerian propose at the very end.


As longtime readers of my blog know all too well, I hate 3D movies with the white hot passion of a thousand exploding suns. That said, a mind-bogglingly visual movie like this seems tailor made for 3D. In fact I would have actually considered seeing Valerian in 3D. So of course it makes perfect sense that it wasn't shot in native 3D, nor was there a 3D option playing anywhere within a hundred miles of me.

I had a feeling this film was gonna bomb hard here in the States, and unfortunately I was right. So far it's only managed to gross a dismal $32 million. It hasn't done any better overseas, where it's only raked in $29 million. Add it all up and it's made just $61 million against it's massive budget of $177 million. Some sources report that the budget was actually closer to $210 million! 


I don't think the film's premiered worldwide yet, but I honestly don't think it matters. At this point it's extremely unlikely it'll ever break even, much less turn a profit. Sadly, it looks like this will be the one and only cinematic adventure of Valerian and Laureline.


So what went wrong? Why didn't Valerian connect with the public? There were a number of reasons.


Unfamiliarity With The Property: Although the Valerian And Laureline comic is very popular in its home country of France (and much of Europe), it's virtually unknown here in the States. In fact I'd be surprised if even 1% of the audience had ever heard of the comic, much less read it. That unfamiliarity had to have been a big factor in audience disinterest.


One could argue that Guardians Of The Galaxy was just as unknown when it premiered, but it was still a massive success (along with its sequel). But Guardians had the advantage of being produced by Marvel Studios, which has been on an unparalleled roll since 2008. Audiences may not have known who the Guardians were, but they recognized the Marvel brand!


Lack Of Star Power/Miscasting: When you make a movie that focuses on just two main characters, you'd better make damned sure you pick the right actors. Sadly, Valerian fails miserably in this regard, as its stars are woefully miscast.


Dane Dehaan (who plays Valerian) is a fine actor, but an action hero he is not. The Valerian character is a brash wisecracking adventurer and ladies' man, and has always been drawn as a typical square-jawed leading man. Sort of like a young Bruce Campbell. Dehaan looks for all the world like he's fifteen at the most. Seeing him try to talk tough and swagger his way through the film is like watching a child playing grown up. And the movie's notion that he somehow has a string of female conquests is laughable at best.


Cara Delevingne (last seen in 2016's Suicide Squad as the Enchantress) doesn't fare much better. Delevingne is a former fashion model, with all the acting skills that profession requires. She seems to have one default expression which she uses throughout most of the film, as if she's back up there on the catwalk. On the slightly plus side, at least she somewhat resembles the comic version of Laureline.


As bad as these two are individually, they're even worse together. They have absolutely zero chemistry, and their attempts at playful, "sexy" banter fail miserably. They seem more like brother and sister than potential lovers.


Confusion Over The Concept: I have a feeling the public had absolutely no idea what this movie was about. Epic space fantasy? Futuristic action film? High concept comedy? Sci-fi love story? All of the above?

The trailer didn't help clarify the story or tone either, leaving potential audience members in the dark and causing them to stay away in droves.


Reverse Similarity: The Valerian comic's been around since 1967, and has been a HUGE influence on dozens of sci-fi films over the years— including the Star Wars films. So even though Valerian did it all first, it's just now making it to the silver screen. Unfortunately this makes it look like it's copying from the very movies it inspired! The general public has no idea Valerian came first, so they just write it off as another Star Wars ripoff.


Valerian also bears a visual similarity to 2015's Jupiter Ascending, which was a critical and financial disaster. I have a feeling that film may have unfairly tainted Valerian with its box office stench.


Bad Timing: Unfortunately Valerian premiered the same weekend as Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated Dunkirk and the chick flick Girl's Trip, both of which are tearing up the box office. War For The Planet Of The Apes and Spider-Man: Homecoming are both still in theaters as well, siphoning even more cash away from Valerian.


In retrospect it might have been better to delay the film's release until September or October, when there wouldn't have been as much competition.


Put these elements all together and unfortunately they spell "Box Office Bomb."


SPOILERS!

The Plot:
It's pretty convoluted, so I'll try to straighten it out as much as I can.

We begin in 1975, with a small space station orbiting Earth. Over the years various nations achieve space flight and add on to the station. Numerous alien species then make contact with Earth, attaching their own modules to the ever-growing station. By the 28th Century, Alpha is a vast construct housing thousands of races and millions of inhabitants, sharing their knowledge and coexisting in peace. Eventually Alpha grows so massive it threatens Earth, so the President Of The World State Federation (played by Rutger Hauer in a VERY brief cameo appearance) orders Alpha to be propelled into deep space.

Cut to the planet Mul, an ocean paradise inhabited by the Navi, er, I mean the Pearls, a primitive, spiritual race that lives in harmony with the land. The Pearls harvest glowing energy, er, pearls from the ocean, which they feed to small animals called "converters." The converters duplicate any object they ingest (Plot Point!) and literally poop out hundreds more energy pearls (!). The Pearls then take these glowing gems and give them back to their planet as an offering. During one of these offerings, a Mul child secretly takes a pearl for itself and keeps it. Another Plot Point!

One day a massive spaceship crashes on Mul, creating a deadly and destructive shockwave. Emperor Haban-Limal and his subjects head for the shelter of a small space capsule that apparently landed on the planet years before. Unfortunately the Emperor's daughter Liho is trapped outside. As the shockwave vaporizes her body, she releases a burst of powerful psychic energy that travels through space.

Smash-cut to thirty years later (something that's not made clear by the film at all). Major Valerian (played by Dane Dehaan), an agent of the Spatio-Temporal Police. He's suddenly jolted awake by Liho's psychic blast, which is just now reaching his location. Liho's soul then enters Valerian, but he shrugs it off as just a dream. 


Valerian and fellow agent Sargent Laureline (played by Cara Delevingne) flirt for a bit, and he even proposes marriage to her. She brushes off his advances, explaining that she doesn't want to be another of his long list of "conquests." Just then Laureline answers a call from the Defense Minister (inexplicably played by musician Herbie Hancock), who orders them to retrieve the last known converter in the galaxy from a black market dealer in Big Market, an interdimensional bazaar.

Valerian and Laureline land on the planet Kyrian, where they're met by a support team of soldiers. Valerian outfits himself with special goggles and gloves, so he can interact with the millions of shops in Big Market, which lie in another dimension. Why another dimension? Because it looks kewl, that's why. He tracks the converter to Igon Sirus (voiced by John Goodman), who illegally obtained it and is selling it to two mysterious hooded figures who pay him with an energy pearl (Plot Point!). Valerian grabs the converter and the pearl, and runs through the interdimensional market in a huge and expensive CGI action setpiece.

He makes it back to Laureline and the support team, and they take off in an antigrav bus. Sirius sends an indestructible alien monster after them, which begins shredding the bus. Valerian calls his ship to his location, and he and Laureline escape seconds before the monster kills everyone on the bus. Sucks to be you, expendable support team!

As the ship heads for Alpha, Laureline rejuvenates the converter creature in a radiation chamber, then hides it in a pouch on her belt. On Alpha they're met by Commander Arun Filitt (played by Clive Owen). He demands Laureline hand over the converter, but she refuses. So I guess that's a thing in the future? Sargents can ignore direct orders from Commanders?

Fillit tells the agents that there's a toxic zone in the center of Alpha that's rapidly spreading, and will completely engulf the station in a matter of weeks. None of the teams sent into the deadly zone have returned. Just when we think he's going to send the two agents into the zone, he orders them to follow him around the station instead (?). Filitt then calls a meeting of Alpha council members to discuss the "infection" that's plaguing the station. Suddenly a group of Pearls burst into the chamber and shoot everyone with weapons that immobilize them in cocoons. They abduct Fillit (thinking he has the converter) and leave with him.

Valerian cuts his way out of his cocoon and chases after Filitt and the Pearls. The Pearls blast off on their ship and fly through the interior of Alpha. Valerian follows in a small pursuit ship. Laureline manages to free herself from her cocoon as well, and tracks Valerian. Unfortunately the two ships fly into the toxic zone, and Laureline loses contact with Valerian.

Laureline's then contacted by a trio of Shingouz informants, who offer to help her find Valerian— for a price, of course. They tell her she needs to find a quartex jellyfish to track him. Unfortunately, the jellyfish like to attach themselves to the heads of giant whale-like aliens. Laureline hires a pirate named Bob (!) to help her steal one of the jellyfish. They barely escape with their lives, but manage to capture one. Laureline puts the enormous jellyfish over her head, which somehow gives her Valerian's exact location. Yeah, this is an odd movie.

Laureline finds Valerian in the wreckage of his crashed ship. After a brief reunion, she sees a glowing butterfly fluttering through the air, and for some reason grabs it. She's then caught and reeled in by aliens who are literally fishing for humans (!).

Valerian chases after Laureline, and finds himself in a seedy part of Alpha. For no reason at all, he wanders into a burlesque show run by a pimp named Jolly (played by Ethan Hawke). Valerian's mesmerized by the main attraction, a dancer named Bubble (played by Rihanna) who's a shapeshifter. She uses her powers to constantly morph her outfits and looks.

At the end of her act, Bubble asks Valerian for help to escape her sad life. He knocks out Jolly and takes Bubble with him. Valerian tracks Laureline to an alien citadel, where she's to be sacrificed to their king. Bubble flows over Valerian's body and disguises him as one of the aliens, which I have to admit was pretty cool. Valerian/Bubble rescues Laureline, and the three then have to battle their way out of the citadel in another expensive action setpiece. Unfortunately Bubble's killed as they escape, and turns to dust. Oh no! That character we've known for all of ten minutes is dead! How sad!

Valerian and Laureline then enter the center of the "toxic" zone, and find the air and environment are completely normal. They discover a large ship at the center of the zone, which is inhabited by Pearls— including Emperor Haban and his subjects. Haban explains that thirty years ago, Filitt was the commander of an Earth ship involved in a war with an alien armada. As the ships approached the peaceful planet Mul, Filitt gave the order to fire a doomsday weapon at the enemy fleet. Unfortunately he didn't check to see if Mul was inhabited first. The weapon wiped out the alien fleet, but it caused the ships to crash to the surface of Mul, destroying the planet.

A handful of Pearls survived, and are now seeking to rebuild their ruined world. All they need is one of the energy pearls and a converter— items that both Valerian and Laureline possess. Haban examines Valerian, and senses he's carrying the soul of his daughter Liho.

This convinces Valerian and Laureline to hand over the energy pearl and converter to Haban. He feeds the pearl to the converter, which duplicates hundreds more. He then uses these energy pearls to recreate a perfect simulation of Mul inside their spaceship. Just then, Filitt orders a squad of K-Tron robot soldiers to surround the Pearl ship and fire on his order.

Valerian and Laureline then confront Filitt, accusing him of trying to cover up his thirty year old war crime by eliminating the Pearls. He orders the robots to attack, resulting in many Pearl casualties. Valerian eventually destroys the robots, and Filitt is arrested.

Haban thanks Valerian and Laureline for helping them rebuild their world. He tells Valerian that Liho's spirit can now leave his body and rest in peace. Valerian proposes to Laureline again, and promises she'll be the only one on his list. Fade out as the two of them kiss.

Thoughts:

• History repeats itself: Back in 1997, Luc Besson (co)wrote and directed The Fifth Element, which had a budget of $100 million, making it the most expensive French film ever made (up to that time).

Here we are in 2017, as Besson wrote and directed Valerian, which had a budget of somewhere between $177 million and $210 million (depending on who you ask), making it the most expensive French movie ever made.

I'm looking forward to 2027, when Besson once again makes the most expensive French film ever.


• The title of the movie was obviously inspired by the Valerian comic The Empire Of A Thousand Planets, despite the fact that the film has absolutely nothing to do with that story. Instead it's VERY loosely based on another issue called Ambassador Of The Shadows. I guess Besson felt the latter title wasn't exciting enough.

Oddly enough, Ambassador Of The Shadows is actually a Laureline-centric episode, as Valerian is captured early on by aliens and is absent for most of the story. The bulk of the plot concerns Laureline searching the station (called "Central Point" in the comic) for him. He doesn't show up again until the last few pages.


Obviously it wouldn't make much sense for Valerian to sit out most of his own movie, so Besson rejiggered the plot a bit to give the two agents equal time. Maybe it would have been better to have adapted the first issue of the comic, to show us how the two characters actually met?


• For the most part Valerian is very faithful to its source material, with a couple of MAJOR and puzzling exceptions. In the comic, Valerian and Laureline are agents in the "Spatio-Temporal Service," meaning they travel through both space AND time. For some reason the film chooses to completely ignore the time travel element. 

Secondly, the film leaves out a HUGE and defining aspect of the Laureline character— she's actually from the past! See, in the very first comic story (The City Of Shifting Waters), Valerian is sent on a mission to 11th Century France. He gets into a jam of course, and is saved by a peasant girl named Laureline. He decides to take her back to the future with him for reasons. Once there, Laureline puts on a "teaching helmet" to bring her up to speed on future history and technology, and she becomes Valerian's partner.

That's a pretty cool backstory for Laureline, and I have no idea why Besson chose to leave it out. Maybe he was afraid it'd complicate an already overly-convoluted plot?

• Despite those major omissions, the movie goes out of its way to get many of the visuals just right. Some of the characters and vehicles look like they stepped right off the printed page!

For example, the film did an amazing job of translating Valerian's spaceship into the "real" world. It looks exactly like the comic version, right down to the multiple fins and the wide "windshield" in front. 

After taking a look at all the (legally necessary) changes the producers are making on the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series, it's very satisfying to see filmmakers go out of their way to honor the source material. Well done, guys!

They even went out of their way to add the Marmakas, aliens that appear in one panel of Ambassador Of The Shadows!

The converter looks pretty close to the version in Ambassador Of The Shadows as well. The film changes his temperament quite a bit though. He's pretty surly and unpleasant in the comic, but designed to be as cute as possible in the movie.

As for the comic version of the converter being unpleasant— who could blame him? Laureline spends the entire movie forcing him to literally sh*t out money and jewels!

They do a good job of bringing the alien Shingouz to life as well, even though there's something creepy and off-putting about the eyes on the live action versions.

The Bagoulins in the movie look exactly like the comic versions. I think they're my favorite alien design in the entire film. Again, well done!

The alien Pearls sort of have an equivalent in the comic. There they have red skin instead of white, and they've been around so long they no longer remember the name of their race. 

It's nice to see a director who respects the source material enough to try and do it justice, instead of changing everything about it for no other reason than to put his own personal stamp on the project.


• The first five minutes of the movie are absolutely brilliant, as it wordlessly tells the story of how the Alpha station came to be. I loved the scenes of the station commanders greeting various Earth cultures to the station, then gradually transitioning into welcoming assorted alien representatives. It was definitely the highlight of the film.

If only the entire movie could have kept up this level of awesomeness!

• Halfway through the film there's a big action setpiece scene in which Valerian takes a shortcut through the Alpha station by running and literally crashing through a series of walls (!) into various areas. Seriously, every time he comes to a wall he just folds his arms and plows right through it, without even slowing down.


Either Valerian has super-strength that we're never told about, or the walls of Alpha are really, really thin. We're talking cheap apartment wall-level thin.


I wonder how many Alpha residents died in the aftermath of his little sprint? He starts in a storage area, then in order he crashes into an industrial section, a greenhouse, a huge vertical shaft, a tunnel filled with delicate-looking blue spheres being tended by aliens and finally an underwater environment.

Note that all these various sections are right next to one another. Hopefully no one was killed when the water flooded the blue sphere tunnel, or the toxic atmosphere of the industrial section invaded the greenhouse.

• This doesn't actually have anything to do with the Valerian film, but eh, it's as good a place as any to discuss it.


As I said earlier, the Valerian And Laureline comic was a HUGE influence on an entire generation of filmmakers, illustrators, animators and designers. It seems to have been particularly inspirational to the artists and technicians who worked on the various Star Wars films. Thumb through any random issue of Valerian and you'll see some very familiar images.

These similarities didn't go unnoticed by the creators of Valerian. Surprisingly, Pierre Christin was delighted by Star Wars, and actually saw its swipes as a compliment. Said Christin, "That’s how it goes in sci-fi— It’s all about copying from one another. Or, in other terms, you borrow something from someone else and develop it further. In any case, Star Wars was a huge, positive surprise to me. I loved the characters."

Jean-Claude Mezieres was a little less charitable about the situation. When he sat down in 1977 to watch Star Wars for the first time, he said he was "astonished" to see how many of his designs and concepts (especially the idea of a lived in future) found their way into the film.

Mezieres reportedly contacted George Lucas to make polite inquiries about all the similarities, but his calls went unanswered.

Mezieres fired back at Lucas shortly afterward with this drawing, showing Luke and Leia running into Valerian and Laureline in an alien cantina...

Let's take a look at just how much Valerian influenced that galaxy far, far away.


While it's not an exact match, there's no denying the fact that Valerian's ship was a big inspiration for the Millennium Falcon.

Valerian also introduced a terrifying masked character...

...whose helmet covered a hideously scarred face.

The Ambassador in Ambassador Of The Shadows bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Imperial officer from Star Wars.

In one issue Laureline even dons a retroactively familiar metal bikini!

To be fair though, Valerian didn't invent the notion of the scantily clad sci-fi babe. That's been going on since the days of John Carter Of Mars.

The similarities even extend to environments. Valerian featured several cloud cities...

As well as a massive alien citadel on a desert planet— complete with two suns in the sky!

The comic didn't just influence ships, props and characters, but actual shots as well!

Valerian even seems to have influenced the Star Wars Prequels!


A determined George Lucas apologist could probably talk himself into believing a lot of these similarities are just innocent coincidences. But even the most delusional fan couldn't ignore the fact that Han Solo in carbonite is a blatant swipe of Valerian sealed in some kind of amber resin. Jesus Christ! Solo's even got his arms up just like Valerian did! There's no way in hell THIS one was just a coincidence!

In addition, the Valerian comic featured a clone army storyline, and the characters often found themselves in seedy bars filled with hundred of alien denizens.

I suppose none of this should come as a surprise, since Lucas liberally borrowed elements from Flash Gordon serials, samurai films, WWII movies, Arthurian legend and more. Why not throw French comics into the mix as well?

Valerian is a visually stunning sci-fi action film that's sadly all flash and no substance. It definitely looks amazing, but the two leads are horribly miscast and their characters are woefully undeveloped, which only adds to the cold and sterile tone. Maybe Luc Besson needs to study the Guardians Of The Galaxy films to learn how to do thrilling space opera with compelling characters. It deserves a C+, but I'm bumping it up to a B- out of my affection for the source material.

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