Forty years ago, a young Luc Besson read a quirky, colourful sci-fi comic called “Valérian” that blew his young mind. Twenty years later, his quirky, colourful sci-fi movie “The Fifth Element” blew my teenage mind.
This summer, Besson’s latest film, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” brings us full circle to the future — and I’m hoping it will blow some young minds of its own.
The “Valerian” movie is in theatres in the US on 21 July. Here’s everything you need to know.
What’s it about?
The movie tells the story of two time-travelling space agents, Valerian and Laureline, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. Also blasting off into space are Rihanna, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.
“Valerian” is a sci-fi epic in the truest sense, taking place in a vast and colourful universe filled with audaciously designed creatures and planets.
It’s written and directed by Besson, the French auteur who directed “Leon“, “La Femme Nikita” and “Lucy“, and created all-action franchises such as “The Transporter” and “Taken“. Besson is a visual master whose films always look fantastic.
Those lavish visuals sometimes come at the expense of each film’s story, but there’s no denying that Besson’s work is always totally cinematic. It might not make total sense when you think about it afterward, but it’s absolutely made for the big screen, and the big screen is made for jaw-dropping visual epics like “Valerian”.
The movie is based on a series of French sci-fi comics written by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières beginning in 1967. (Note: The comic and its main character have an accent in their name. The movie and its character do not.) Reading the comic now, the first couple of Valérian and Laureline stories deliver fun if hokey time-travel shenanigans, with writing and art that recalls cartoonier comics like “Asterix and Obelix”.
But then the third volume appeared in 1969 and the comic soared to new heights. In just its opening double-page spread, the story “Empire of a Thousand Planets” takes us on an astonishingly rich tour of a bizarre and enticing alien world full of exotic creatures, living jewels and mysterious temple-fortresses.
From there, the many adventures of the square-jawed Valérian and lissome Laureline take off across time and space for more than 20 volumes of extraordinary and extravagant imagery.
It’s no wonder the comic blew 10-year-old Besson’s mind.
All the elements
And it wasn’t just Besson who was inspired by the comic. “Valérian” was a huge influence on sci-fi creators across the globe, including George Lucas. Reading the original comic today is a strange experience as you spot elements familiar from Star Wars and other sci-fi touchstones that, shall we say, paid homage to the French strip.
Suitably inspired, the teenage Besson quickly began writing his own space opera. Over the next two decades, his story absorbed influences from “Valérian” and other comics like the iconic sci-fi anthology Heavy Metal. By the 1990s his sprawling script had evolved into what would eventually become the 1997 movie “ “.
Besson even hired “Valérian” artist Jean-Claude Mézières to create concept designs for “Fifth Element”, along with another legendary and influential French comic artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius.
Very special effects
“The Fifth Element” was made at the cusp of the digital revolution in visual effects. There are some computer-created shots, but most of the sets are real, the aliens are wearing real prosthetic make-up, and the explosions and actions was done for real.
For my money the practical effects of “The Fifth Element” hold up better than the pioneering CG effects in Star Wars prequel “The Phantom Menace”, made at the same time. But Besson wasn’t entirely happy. Luckily, 20 years later, he gets to revisit the fantastical visions in his head — and now, with today’s cutting-edge digital effects, he can finally realise the eye-popping space opera he always wanted to make.
The trailers give a glimpse of the sumptuous sci-fi universe Besson has created. But don’t take my word for it: “Fifth Element” co-writer and Besson’s regular collaborative partner Robert Mark Kamenthat “‘Valerian’ makes ‘The Fifth Element’ look like a child did it with a crayon.”
Kamen described “The Fifth Element” as Besson’s “first stab” at making the sci-fi movie that had been in his head since reading “Valérian” years before. Fans have often discussed a possible “Fifth Element” sequel, and Kamen told me much of the energy and ideas that Besson had poured into writing a sequel have now been focused into this new film.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” combines two strands of what has been a great summer for blockbusters. ““, “ ” and “ ” all prove that in the right hands there’s life in blockbuster comic book adaptations. Meanwhile, “ ” and “Atomic Blonde” bring a blast of freshness with new characters exploding onto the big screen for the first time.
As a long-time fan of the “The Fifth Element”, Luc Besson, and exotic space opera comics, I’m totally psyched for “Valerian”. Still, a quirky French director adapting a little-known foreign comic without major stars might be a tough sell for western audiences. And that could be bad news for Besson’s company, EuropaCorp: the studio suffered a whopping $135 million loss this year after flops like “9 Lives” and “ “.
The movie is already dividing opinion, with an early Metacritic score of 47. Reviews range from Variety calling it “the kind of wild, endlessly creative thrill ride that only [Besson] could deliver” to The Hollywood Reporter complaints about an “indecipherable” storyline. You could say the same about “The Fifth Element”, and that’s a much-loved film for countless fans.
Hopefully filmgoers could be seduced by the promise of something a little different, a little weird, a little gorgeous. I’m looking to have my mind blown again — and who knows? Maybe the next Luc Besson is about to have his or her young mind blown too.
See you in the future…
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is in theatres in the US on 21 July, the UK on 2 August and Australia on 10 August.
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