Friday, August 4, 2017

Valerian Who?

My first reaction to trailers for City of a Thousand Planets was that it looked like a fun piece of sci-fi entertainment most likely having nothing new to offer. There certainly seemed to be a lot of creative visuals, and since the man behind it was Luc Besson, who brought us The Fifth Element, this did not surprise me. But then the word was that Besson had been planning this since he was a kid, and that it was based on a sci-fi serial that had been popular in Europe since the late 1960's! That kind of staying power was enough to get my attention, and prompt me to ask the question that titles this entry. How had I not heard of this until now? This combination of factors gave it the potential to be the first space opera film since Star Wars to cross the line into "ground-breaking" territory. I was actually beginning to get excited.

Now part of that had to do with the prospect of digging in to this "new" original material. The adventures of Valerian and Laureline have that old fashioned feel of the original pulp fiction era of science fiction comics, but coming so late in the game, it is able to utilize much more advanced sci-fi concepts. You might say it has the heart of Buck Rogers plus the imagination of Dr. Who, with a 1960's era twist. And the comic book visuals have the same striking originality as the Star Wars universe, convincing the authors that George Lucas must have been influenced by them. There's one short scene in the movie, for example, where our heroes escape an attack by jumping into a garbage shoot. I almost gagged until I remembered this material came first, and then it was totally cool!

The comics might have remained hidden due to the language barrier. The illustrator Jean-Claude Mezieres has a blog here which is still in French. The original serials were eventually published into about 14 novellas, and you can get a sample of some of Pierre Christin's interesting early content at these Wikipedia articles:

Bad Dreams (1968)
The City of Shifting Waters (1968)
Empire of a Thousand Planets (1970)
World Without Stars (1971)
Welcome to Alflolol (1972)
Birds of the Master (1973)
Ambassador of the Shadows (1975)
On the False Earths (1977)
Heroes of the Equinox (1978)

================ spoilers below ==============================

Although Besson claims a script connection to Ambassador of the Shadows, it is clear he has put a lot of his own material into the story, characters, and sets. This is a good thing since a 2 hour film requires a more cohesive arc than a comic serial does, and although the end result is familiar - primitive nature loving race with special gifts in danger of genocide from powerful political faction (Avatar anyone?), the plot moves along as quickly as any comic cliffhanger.

An example of Besson's influence is the Alpha space station, which is modeled after Point Central from the comics, a city made of up lots of different alien subsections all stuck together. In the film, he creates an origin story for Alpha that starts with today's ISS and imagines it growing over the decades and centuries. This makes for a really wonderful opening sequence to the film.

One of the most interesting sequences was a completely original construction called the Big Market. This sequence is so complex that even the cast and crew did not really get it until the first test footage was done, but I think it is safe to at least say it is a very skillful integration of sci-fi technology and concepts with a top notch action sequence, neither of which would work without the other. And the whole thing is an integral plot piece, not just some chase scene added for show. I think I will need to watch it again in slow motion to understand it completely, but I'll try to describe it. The market is in an alternate dimension, but somehow occupies the same space as a desert location on some planet. It is supposed to have a million shops and 500 levels (going underground), which is the "Big" part. You can only see and interact with the market with VR type goggles and gloves. Numerous groups of aliens are mingling in this space also with goggles, but they show up as images of themselves with letters above their heads that indicate their species of origin, and it seems they are not all in the same physical location, so they must be "dialing" in from various places. Finally, you can somehow transport any items you wish to purchase from the VR location to your real location via a converter device when you check out. This is accomplished by a DNA identification mechanism that also probably charges the item to your bank account.

Our agents are assigned to steal an item right from the table of an underground trade deal in progress, and their team scans them with some device to make them invisible within the market, I think? Plus Valerian must keep his arm locked into a portable converter device in order to pick up the cargo and convert it to real form without being detected. There are border guard aliens in watchtowers over the desert area. How they overtake one of these guys is both humorous and ingenious at the same time. And there are guards in the VR world too, but in order to "capture" a digital shopper, they must shoot rounds of a type of magnetic ball that sticks to certain digital things and "weighs" them down so the person controlling them on the other side can't move them around or pull out. It is refreshing that there is little attempt to narratively explain all this alien technology, but the effect is that I cannot tell if it is ingenious new sci-fi material or just a bunch of weird tricks to make me think the emperor has clothes on. Either way, it is damn good movie making.

So it did turn out to be a very engaging film. The only things that bothered me (a little) was that all the central characters were so young, even when compared with the original comic strip. My guess is that with the large body of material to draw from and our director's passion for the subject matter, he intends to do more movies and wants to make sure his main characters remain young and available for many years to come.

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