Luc Besson’s latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is clearly the culmination of a long-simmering passion. Besson has talked at length about how the comics that served as his source material were among his only avenues of entertainment in childhood, and how he became addicted to them, even though they were only released at the rate of two pages a week. While his movie adaptation stumbles over characters and plot, it does excel at capturing the look and feel of the world created in those French comics.
Valérian et Laureline was created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières. The pair grew up together, and they began creating comics in the mid-1960s. Christin says he and Mézières steered toward science fiction because there weren’t many such comics in France, and the genre was extremely popular overseas. The pair also wanted to write about an unconventional character, and they wanted an outlet to comment on French politics of the time. “I despised all those things and I yearned,” Christin recounted, “like so many people from my generation, for change.”
The result was Valérian, a 28th century spatio-temporal agent, and his brilliant partner, Laureline. The pair first appeared in 1967 in the French magazine Pilote. They’re tasked with protecting the interstellar human empire from time travelers messing with the timeline. The comic was published through 2010, and has been cited as an influence on stories including Besson’s own Fifth Element and George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Besson became a devoted fan of the comics at age 10, and has said Laureline, a female protagonist and brilliant spaceship pilot in an era of science fiction damsels in distress, was “a revolution for me.” And he respected that dynamic in the film, alongside the comic’s big, messy, serialized world. Some of the movie’s aliens are revamped to be more CGI-fluid and aesthetically pleasing. But other parts of the film, like the scene where Laureline plops a jellyfish over her head to take advantage of its psychic visions, were lifted directly from the comics. The Mul Converter, the weird creatures Rihanna’s shape-shifting character impersonates, and the Pearls’ blasting sticky guns are all Christin and Mézières’ creations.
The effort to fit in so many ideas and images from the comics’ run does make Valerian feel erratic, as it jumps wildly between settings. Like its promotional poster, the movie comes across as more of an array of potential travel destinations and vivid plotlines than like a single, concrete story. It could rightly be called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Movies.
Besson’s vision is only a tiny part of a much larger world. The film largely adapts the sixth volume of the series, Ambassador of the Shadows, which was originally published between July and October 1975. This arc follows Valérian and Laureline as they’re tasked with protecting an ambassador to a space station known as Point Central. The ambassador is about to propose an intergalactic federation, but then aliens from a mysterious section of the station attack. Besson borrows storylines from the comics to borrow scenes and features for other elements of his film, creating less of a direct adaptation of the source material, while focusing on bringing Christin and Mézières’ work to life. If Besson does more films in this world (he’s indicated that he’s written a pair of sequels and is working on another), he’ll have plenty of material to delve into.