Adapting Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres’ Valerian and Laureline graphic novel universe would be a mammoth enough task for a television series, let alone a one-off, feature-length film. Running from 1967 to 2010, and spanning twenty-one volumes along with a short story compilation and an encyclopedia, the series outlines the almost impossibly complex and detailed universe only really possible in a graphic novel format. Nevertheless, Luc Besson has attempted the impossible with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, drawing upon his collaboration with Mezieres on The Fifth Element to try and select some small part of this massive fictional world to bring to the big screen, while gesturing towards its residual complexity and density in the process. The result may be inconsistent at times but, at its best, has to be one of the most breathtakingly ambitious and original science fiction films I’ve seen this decade. At no point since his work on the Arthur and the Invisibles trilogy has Besson brokered his experience in animation as elegantly as he has here, producing some of the most beautiful fusions of real and CGI footage ever committed to the big screen, all anchored, for the most part, in blue, his trademark colour.
The opening of the film says it all, as we start with archival footage of the first tentative space exploration in the mid 20th-century, before launching into a montage sequence that takes us up to the present day, and then all the way to the 28th-century, scored to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It’s the kind of combination of retro stylisation with sci-fi futurity that has become such a hallmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise in particular, which is where the MCU touches most closely on classical science fiction. Yet the effect of that combination here is very different from the MCU, where it forms part of a wider reflexive impotence in the face of devising anything genuinely original or outrageous – a kind of aesthetic defeatism encapsulated in the paucity of the MCU’s knowing, ironic and self-referential solipsism. At the beginning of Valerian, however, the impact is just the opposite, as Besson seems to outline a world in which the magisterial and cosmic dimensions of science fiction – and the spectacle of futurity that drives them – has been commodified and corporatised, requiring us to move eight centuries into the future in order to recapture some genuine ambition and aspiration to awe-inspiring affect.
Of course, that very capacity for awe has been so thoroughly internalised by the MCU that it’s not enough simply to reassert it, or reassure us that it exists. Instead, Besson adopts two quite different strategies in the first half of the film to forestall, and leave open, the possibility of wonder, before moving onto the “City of a Thousand Planets” that gives this particular saga in Christin and Meziere’s universe its title. Both of these opening episodes touch upon Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a pair of United Federation Soldiers charged with maintaining a universe that has become radically more expansive and interspecial in the eight centures that have elapsed since the present day. The first of these sequences is almost entirely computer generated, and focuses on the destruction of an idyllic planet called Mul, whose humanoid inhabitants live in an idyllic relationship with nature, fishing for pearls that contain enormous amounts of energy, and then using a small creatures known as “Mul Converters” to replicate them, before sacrificing them back to the planet as a whole. In its vision of total symbiotic communion, there’s something so insular about this planet that it almost defies continuity with the small part of the film we have seen so far, playing more as an abstraction and distillation of the sweeping, otherworldly, cosmic beaches that have undergirded so many of Besson’s futuristic reveries.
That continuity with Besson’s earlier career is enhanced by the stylised, almost old-fashioned aesthetic on display on the planet Mul, which might be immaculately rendered in contemporary CGI, but actually recalls the fixtures and features of a more mid-century brand of science fiction animation – the animation that Bezieres and Christin drew upon for Valerian and Laureline in the first place. Not surprisingly, that produces a certain aesthetic dissonance, and awkwardness, that carries over into the second part of this two-pronged opening, which occurs shortly after the planet Mul is destroyed by a galactic war of unknown origin and import. It’s at this point that we’re introduced to Valerian and Laureline more fully, en route to a virtual bazaar in another part of the galaxy where they’ve been charged with rescuing a dangerous item that turns out to be the last of the “Mul Converters” to be salvaged from the planet before it was destroyed. From the outset, it’s clear that this sequence is explicitly designed to resist the sublimity of science fiction, or at least any sublimity that feels too easily won, as Besson peppers his script with irreverent, silly, cartoony, daggy, lowbrow humour that feels light years away from the executive-approved “knowingness” that so often passes for comedy and domesticity within the MCU.
More pervasively, however, Besson resists the kinds of singular, stately and sublime orientations towards physical space so typical of science fiction as a genre. Although the “physical” incarnation of this bazaar is merely an empty square of desert populated with global tourists wearing VR headgear, the “virtual” incarnation is unbelievably reticulated, detailed and so densely populated that it’s almost impossible to navigate. I put “physical” and “virtual” in scare quotes, however, because the film shifts in and out of virtual reality in quite a bathetic and banal way, folding other dimensions and spatial fields into the texture of everyday life so matter-of-factly that there is, effectively, no sustained sense of depth or space, with some sequences exuding the flatness of a graphic novel and others evincing the more expansive coordinates of cinematic science fiction. As if to capture a world in which humans have long ceased to be privileged in their own cosmic narratives, or the bric-a-brac, hodge-podge, carnivalesque atmosphere of a genuinely multispecial universe, Besson refrains from the splendid thresholds that preoccupy so much traditional science fiction, and instead situates everyting at an emergent, impressionistic, haphazard, picaresque threshold between all the different media and technologies that now comprise the cosmos.
If that sounds somewhat breathless, then that’s because the film is breathless as well, opting for a messy intermediality that collapses cinema, painting, drawing, graphic novels and any other platform upon which the story might be told into an incommensurate whole. Strangely, the closest analogy I can think of in classical science fiction is the bazaar of A New Hope, since Valerian is much closer to the spirit of that galactic melting-pot than the more self-consciously and humourlessly “representative” bent of the more recent Star Wars films. Of course, gaming is also a big reference here, as Besson often seems to be situating the film within the subjectivity of the gamer as much as drawing upon any one particular game – a state of mind that is never quite in or out of the game, just as Valerian himself is never quite in or out of these virtual fields, instead occupying one slippery, intersititial, transitional zone after another, as if to capture a world in which all matter has become transmatter, and all space has become exospace. While DeHaan may not initially quite work as our cocky guide to this universe, he’s deflected into so many avatars and virtual planes – and deflected so quickly – that his charisma quickly comes to feel quite naturalistic, in possibly the best homage to sandbox, open-world gaming I’ve ever seen brought to the big screen.
As spectacular as they are, however, these two opening sections are merely the precursor to the main part of the film, which sees Valerian and Laureline returning to the “City of a Thousand Planets,” a descendant of the mid-20th century space station that we glimpsed at the beginning of the film. Here, we learn that this space station gradually became such a global hub, and attracted representatives from so many alien species, that it eventually had to detach itself from the Earth’s orbit for fear of damaging the planet, and has been drifting through space ever since, as the diplomatic and intellectual locus for a unified comos – a literal universe. While the visual register may shift back to a more classically cinematic “look,” here, the spatial disruption of the first two segments, paired with the sheer complexity of the “City of a Thousand Planets” – informally known as “Alpha” – allows Besson to recover the sense of wonder and, perhaps more importantly, the capacity for wonder, that recent science fiction often struggles so hard to come to terms with. Watching this space unfold, I was often reminded of The Wood Between The Worlds, in The Magician’s Nephew, the first volume in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. This wood forms part of the creation myth of Narnia, and is experienced by the two main characters, Polly and Digory, very early on in the book. In essence, it comprises an endless forest, full of pools, each of which represents a nascent world – and just one of which turns out to be Narnia – in a vision of limitless imaginative potential that, as a child, tended to stir me more than the specific, contingent incarnation of Narnia, as just one world-option, ever could do.
That same sense of world-building is on display here, and frequently – inevitably – exceeds the narrative itself, which revolves around Valerian and Laureline’s discovery that a weapon of mass destruction has been planted at the heart of Alpha, despite the fact that every known species has an investment in the ongoing security and safety of the city. Under commands from their officers, they investigate this entity, a quest that takes them through an astonishing cross-section of different environments, and an endless array of innovative technologies, in which the threshold between the ship and the universe around it starts to feel as the provisional as the distinction between “real” and “virtual” worlds. Whereas most science fiction films understandably present space as the final spectacle and frontier, Alpha is so dense and involuted that any vista of outer space is displaced and deflected onto its own internal landscapes, as well as – even more memorably – the spaces between them, and the connective zones between a panorama of vastly different ecosystems, set up to accommodate a panorama of vastly different intergalactic organisms. In traversing this world, Valerian and Laureline have to conform to a model of space more akin to being underwater than being in “outer space,” as they negotiate one viscous, fluid and gelatinous medium after another, along with an increasingly tight network of neural interfaces in Alpha’s hive mind, culminating with the “cortex jellyfish” Laureline finds in one of the deepest, most waterlogged parts of the city, which she then uses to help rescue Valerian.
While there may be a notionally linear structure here, then, the world of Alpha continually works against it by expanding in lateral, tangential, incidental and metonymic ways, and at an oblique remove from the narrative proper. It’s the same kind of curiosity evident in the Studio Ghibli films, as Valerian and Laureline find themselves sliding and slipping through one interstitial space after another, spaces not technically part of the official narrative, both in terms of the ship and the story, but whose detritus, illegal aliens and diplomatic blind spots actually end up bringing them to the heart of what makes Alpha tick, and the nature of this destructive entity at its core. That emergent discovery culminates with “Bubble,” a shape-shifting creature played by Rihanna, who plays as the best personification of the film as a whole, and the ideal resident of Alpha, even or especially as s(he) – or they – is an illegal immigrant, living in the depths of an area roughly modelled on Broadway that has been reserved for all the species, humans included, who don’t quite compute with the diplomatic and democratic streamlining of the city as a whole. As Bubble morphs and blends from one form to another – only one of them Rihanna, but somehow all of them Rihanna as well – the film finally settles into what it really wants to be – an interspecial comedy of manners – as Bubble and Valerian combine bodies and shapeshift into one creature after another, trying to “feel” what it’s like to inhabit the cosmos with a different set of contours.
While Besson may sometimes play fast and loose with any broader narrative structure, then, it’s extraordinary to witness a fictional universe that feels like a universe – so fully realised that any story set within it is bound to be minor, and incapable of being contained by any one film or film franchise. Even the animation is impeccable – the CGI creatures have facial expressions, quirks and tics every bit as charismatic as those of the humans – despite only offering us the slightest glimpse of the complexity, detail and density we could immerse ourselves in if we stayed here a bit longer. Certainly, it’s incomplete, and feels incomplete, but Besson has grasped that the only way to adapt this graphic novel is as an incomplete gesture, outlining a world that feels gloriously open-ended and expansive. That does beg the question of how to “end” it all, leading Besson to opt for a kind of post-colonial parable about the dangers of trying to reduce the universe to a single story, let alone a single human story. In some ways, this is the weakest part of the film – not conceptually, but stylistically, since Besson inevitably has to fall back upon some fairly intensive exposition just to wrap things up in the way necessary for a mainstream film. Yet while he wraps things up, he never shuts down his world, or makes it feel more closed either, and it is the detail and majesty of that world that ultimately endures from Valerian, one of the most original, ambitious and staggeringly dense science fiction films this century.