Though Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was listed third on my Movie Must-Sees list for 2017, it was easily the one I was most looking forward to. While I haven’t been a big fan of the films that I’ve seen by director and screenwriter Luc Besson (The Fifth Element and Lucy), I was interested in Valerian because I felt like I could get into it on the bottom floor – instead of playing catch-up like I usually do.
The film, which premiered last Friday (and has decidedly tanked), is based on a long-running French comic series, Valerian et Laureline, which was written and drawn by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, respectively. While the series never really took off in the United States, its influence can be seen in a number of other science fiction franchises, namely Star Wars.
It was this influence that first drew me to the series. Star Wars is considered such a watershed moment for cinema, particularly in the realm of special effects, and I was curious to explore the comics that informed much of the look of George Lucas’s epic.
I originally aimed to get through all 21 volumes of Valerian and Laureline, but despite the connection to the film, they were still relatively difficult to find; only the first 17 volumes have been translated into English. I did however read the first three stories (Bad Dreams, The City of Shifting Waters, and The Empire of a Thousand Planets), as well as the sixth one (Ambassador of the Shadows), which Besson seems to have taken as his inspiration.
The general set-up of the series is relatively simple: Valerian is a spatio-temporal agent (i.e., time traveler) from the 28th Century. Laureline, his partner, is from the 11th Century and together they travel through space and time, disrupting various plots. Valerian is billed as a “classical hero,” but from what I read, he often seems to be the one in distress. It’s typically Laureline who uses her intelligence and determination to save the day.
The stories themselves aren’t entirely terrible, but they don’t really hold up all that well either. Mézières’ style is decidedly 1970s in both its look and feel (Bad Dreams was published in 1967), and Christin’s writing is too – with some of the earlier issues discussing themes like climate change and nuclear war. Yet there are also moments that seem extremely prescient, such as the conflict between science and religion in The Empire of a Thousand Planets, and the Terran representative wanting to instill order in Point Central through a “civilizing mission” in Ambassador of the Shadows.
What struck me the most though as I read through the various reviews of Besson’s film was Jacob Oller’s observation in The Hollywood Reporter that, at some point, it simply “thuds to a halt.” While it sounds like there are several reasons for this (e.g., an over-emphasis on spectacle rather than story, a lack of chemistry between the leads, etc.), it dawned on me that the comics themselves often end rather abruptly too.
Take Bad Dreams for instance. Valerian travels to the 11th Century to hunt down a villain from the future before he can do too much damage and meets Laureline when she rescues him from an enchanted forest. Eventually, she is turned into a unicorn (don’t ask) and informs Valerian upon her return to human form that she knows all about the future since unicorns can read minds; therefore, she’s going with him to the 28th Century. Similarly, as I was reading Ambassador of the Shadows, I kept waiting for the big reveal of who the villain was – and for Valerian to be saved, again – but it didn’t happen until the last page and a half of the comic. Did it tie up the loose ends? Sort of. Did it feel rushed? Definitely.
Overall, I’m not sorry that I spent several hours diving into the first few volumes of Valerian and Laureline. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m relatively new to comics, let alone French ones, so it was nice to push myself outside of my comfort zone a bit. Plus, I now have something that I can talk about with a little more authority than the Mysterious Mr. C, who is much more steeped in geek culture than I am! And I can certainly appreciate the groundbreaking nature of the series itself, even if it has been ultimately surpassed by its successors.