In 1967, writer Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mezieres first co-created the French comic book series “Valerian and Laureline.” The popular sci-fi adventures “inspired” future projects including George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (for an entertaining and informative look at how that inspiration went, and how generous Christin was regarding Lucas’ success, watch the Film Theorists’ YouTube video).
Now, 50 years after the team of intergalactic special agents first appeared, director Luc Besson has brought them to the big screen in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” His live-action adaptation, many years in the making, introduces audiences to Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne), professional partners and, Valerian hopes, romantic ones, also. Despite their different ranks, Valerian and Laureline are very much equals, both in capabilities and in determination (slightly raising the question as to why the film isn’t named “Valerian and Laureline” just like its source comic). The possible romantic future of their relationship provides ongoing conflict for the two as they venture through the galaxy.
Their assignment is to go to the Big Market and recover a Converter, the last creature of its kind. The Converter comes from the planet Mul, destroyed 30 years earlier when a space war invaded the planet’s atmosphere. As the audience sees in early scenes, this Converter was the pet of Mul’s Princess Liho (Sasha Luss). The cute, multi-hued Converter (which should make a very successful licensed toy) is naturally able to ingest an item and then produce thousands of that same item. The Defence Minister (Herbie Hancock) orders Valerian and Laureline to confiscate the Converter and safely bring it to World State Federal Headquarters on the international space station, Alpha.
Of course, things aren’t that straightforward, leading Valerian and Laureline through adventures in both the Big Market and on Alpha. Along the way, they meet a variety of space beings including a trio of Doghan Daguis informants; Jolly (Ethan Hawke), a pimp in Pleasure Alley; Bubble (Rihanna), a talented Glampod who works for Jolly; and some of the original residents of Mul. Plus, Valerian and Laureline are assigned to guard Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), with whom they immediately clash.
Director/ writer Besson has adapted the original stories, which he enjoyed as a boy, into a quick moving narrative and a visual feast. Fortunately, despite “Valerian’s” abundant special-effects, the film doesn’t feel like it’s just one effects shot after the next. Instead, Besson has nicely balanced the interaction of the human cast with a variety of elaborate backgrounds and dramatic creatures.
For “Valerian,” Besson has assembled a multi-talented, international cast. American DeHaan (“Amazing Spider-man 2”) is teamed with British Delevingne (“Suicide Squad”) and they report to American jazz great Herbie Hancock. Pleasure Alley brings together American Hawke and Rihanna of Barbados. Chinese actor/ pop singer Kris Wu plays Sgt. Neza. The Netherlands’ Rutger Hauer has a cameo as President of the World State Federation while British Clive Owen brings a complex commanding officer to the screen. And, in a clever touch, Besson uses a series of film directors to play the various Alpha captains who welcome new inhabitants to the station over the centuries.
One of the highlights of “Valerian” is Rihanna’s performance as Bubble. Bubble’s backstory and interaction with Valerian and Laureline leave the audience admiring her vulnerability and pride. The creativity in her striptease/ pole dance while her character morphs between various fantasy looks mesmerizes both Valerian and the audience (Bubble’s routine was jointly performed by Rihanna and dancer/ contortionist Emily Livingston). Producer Virginie Besson-Silla told Vanity Fair Magazine that in Bubble, Besson created a character that can “change into every man’s fantasy… but in a way that also appealed to women.”
“Valerian’s” action is enhanced by the film’s soundtrack. As David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” plays, the audience is introduced to the evolution of space station Alpha. Life on Mul before the planet is destroyed needs very little dialogue but is accompanied by Academy Award-winning composer Alexander Desplat’s beautiful, haunting melody. Bubble’s dance scene is set to “Bubble Dance” created by DJ Mustard and performed by Julien Rey. And the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” provides an upbeat, recognizable interjection into Pleasure Alley as part of the remix “We Trying to Stay Alive.”
The impressive and breathtaking worlds and creatures of “Valerian” were created by multiple special-effects companies. Digital effects were combined with actual, physical sets designed by Hugues Tissandier. Included in the physical sets is the beach paradise of Mul and a flying school bus which can convert into an armor-plated vehicle when needed. Overseeing the melding of the intricate designs was Oscar-winning effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk. Alien creature design concepts for the film were solicited by director Besson via a worldwide contest on Yahoo Style! Over 3000 entries were received and 20 appear in the final movie. And, complementing all the sets and characters are costumes by Olivier Beriot, providing French chic even when the setting is galactic grunge!
The choice of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to open the film successfully sets the tone. Director Besson has delivered worlds in “Valerian” in which Bowie’s own Ziggy Stardust would have felt right at home.