Acclaimed director Luc Besson, the mastermind behind the critically acclaimed Léon: The Professional (1994), your childhood favourite The Fifth Element (1997), and the rather more divisive Lucy (2014), is back with a new film based on a beloved comic from his childhood.
Comic book adaptations are nothing new in this superhero-saturated age, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne – is perhaps a more interesting choice of source material than most.
The film is based on the 1960s French science fiction comic series Valérian and Laureline, written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, which centres on the eponymously named agents who protect mankind from rogue time travellers. The series was published over 43 years ago, and has been collected into 23 volumes.
What makes Valerian more of a risk than other comic book adaptations is that the source material isn’t as well known outside of Europe. This ain’t no Captain America.
Perhaps to combat this, there seems to have been a marketing effort to familiarise audiences with the characters through the comics, as well as Trailers. A special Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets preview issue was available on Free Comic Book Day, and the very first volume of the original series, The City of Shifting Waters, is currently available to download for free on iTunes Australia.
While the film is broadly based on the volume The Ambassador of Shadows, and the title seems to take its inspiration from The Empire of a Thousand Planets, the first volume still introduces readers to the most important part of the series: the dynamic between Valerian and Laureline.
The story starts in Galaxity, the capital of the Terran Empire in the 28th century. Valerian and Laureline have been sent on a dangerous time travel mission back to New York in 1986: a world in ruins, after a series of cataclysmic events. They are there to stop the mad scientist and megalomaniac Xombul from gaining control of a planet on the brink, in order to save the future as they know it.
The City of Shifting Waters certainly looks and feels dated, which isn’t surprising given that it was first published in 1967. The pages are overburdened with text and exposition, which feels cumbersome in what should be a more visual medium; and the characters and backgrounds are sketchily drawn. According to chatter on the internet, Christin and Mézières don’t hit their storytelling and illustrating stride until The Empire of a Thousand Planets.
These criticisms aside, what the introductory story does set up is an incredible world of almost limitless possibilities and imaginative landscapes.
The setting in this volume, where we see an alternate version of 1986 New York – that is, the city of shifting waters – hits particularly close to home in a climate change conscious 2017. The city has been turned into a high-rise version of Venice, where the few inhabitants that are left in New York zip down waterways between towering skyscrapers. Foyers of buildings have been turned into marshy bayous, and Lady Liberty is pummelled by ceaseless tides. And that’s before we even get to the volcanic landscape of the American desert.
The other aspect of the comic that will catch modern readers by surprise, is the contrast between the casual misogyny on display, and the extent to which Laureline is given agency to call this out. Evidently, 1967 wasn’t quite progressive enough to have removed problematic representation of women from sci-fi comics (but then, neither is 2017). In one scene Laureline is miniaturised by a shrink ray, before slowly re-growing to her original size. The trouble is, her clothes don’ re-grow at the same rate. Eye roll.
But it’s interesting that the inherent sexism at the time (of writing), seemingly endorsed by other characters, is also explicitly challenged. This first volume makes repeated references to the fact that Laureline is more efficient, more competent, and probably just smarter than Valerian. Valerian comments that he doesn’t like women joining the spatio-temporal agent service, because “you’re all to smart for us.” Make of that what you will.
Laureline also seems to be aware of the double standard, which has apparently persisted into the 28th century. When she is shrunk, she astutely points out that it’s “always the women” who have to deal with storylines like that.
It’ll be interesting to see how the film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, updates the characters and their relationship for a modern audience. But what we’re really hanging out to see is what Luc Besson’s imagination can do with the infinite possibilities of space, alongside more advanced special effects. There’s been some minor technological advancements since The Fifth Element back in ‘97…
Bring on the thousand planets, and a thousand different alien species.
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