'Valerian' brings visual splendor (and mixed reviews) to theater

Copyright Cinebook

Valerian: The Complete Collection Volume 1 contains the first three Valerian stories. Art by Jean-Claude Mezieres.


By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Can Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, premiering July 21, break through the foreign graphic novel barrier?

The comics starring Valerian and his partner, Laureline, launched in 1967 in the pages of the French magazine Pilote, and were so popular that writer Pierre Christan and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres continued the series for 43 years. It has sold 2.5 million volumes and, as of the 2007 census records, 1,852 boys have been named Valerian, and 2,062 girls have been dubbed Laureline. (Christin and Mezieres invented both names.)

That would normally bode well for the movie adaptation, written and directed by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). But there have been plenty of comics from France, Japan, Britain and elsewhere that were huge hits in their own country, and did poorly as live-action movie adaptations in the U.S. Remember, if you can, Ghost in the Shell, Judge Dredd, Oldboy, Speed Racer, Tank Girl and Tintin.

Even movies that were critical successes, like Blue is the Warmest Color and Snowpiercer, didn’t make much headway at the box office. (Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is an exception to this list, which is to be expected, since Alan Moore is always the exception to every list he is on.)

This is in contradistinction to movies based on U.S. comics and graphic novels, which generally make oodles of money. Marvel Films is the gold standard here, having grossed $12 billion (and counting) worldwide from 16 films. Huge, non-Marvel superhero hits include Deadpool, Logan and Wonder Woman. Then there are the non-superhero comics that have done well, including 300, A History of Violence, American Splendor, Ghost World, Sin City and so on.

So it’s not like U.S. audiences hae an aversion to movies adapted from comics. It’s just foreign properties that receive a chilly reception. Which may include Valerian, since it is a French-made movie based on a bandes dessinees (the French term for comics).

But there’s still hope, because Valerian is jam-packed with the sort of the thing American audiences love.

The movie features Valerian and Laureline, two “spatio-temporal agents” in the 28th century, who travel both space and time to solve problems. In Valerian, the duo accompany Earth’s ambassador to Alpha, which looks to be what is called Point Central in the comics. Point Central is a massive space station where hundreds of races live, each in their own habitat attached to a mysterious central hub.

The advance info is a little sketchy on what they will do there, but the movie seems largely based on “Ambassador of the Shadows,” the sixth Valerian adventure and the first to be translated into English. That hints at a lot of political intrigue and dangerous espionage set in a fantastic visual feast of bizarre aliens, strange customs and eye-popping, eclectic architecture.

(Despite the title, the movie isn’t based on “Valerian and the Empire of a Thousand Planets,” the third story in the series. It’s possible Besson is cutting and pasting a little bit from the entire Valerian canon.)

Are Laureline and Valerian a couple? In the comics, yes – but it took a little while to get there. Their personalities tend to clash, especially on missions, which slowed the romance a bit.

Christin says in the first volume of Cinebook’s Valerian collections that Valerian is just your typical, square-jawed hero – maybe even a bit boring, as he comes from the well-ordered Earth of 2720. He was even played as somewhat dim and ineffective at times late in the series’ run.

Vikram Gounassegarin/TF1 Films Production

Most critics were unimpressed with Dane DeHaan as Valerian (left), and Cara Delevingne as Laureline.

Laureline, on the other hand, is from the 11th century, which gives her an entirely different perspective. She became part of the strip in Valerian’s first adventure, where he traveled to Dark Ages France, and she essentially blackmailed the agent into taking her to the 28th century, where she trained as an agent and became his partner. Valerian’s first instinct is to follow the rules, whereas Laureline is practically the opposite.

“Laureline’s more ambiguous than Valerian,” Besson says in Valerian: The Complete Collection Volume 1. “She has a problem with authority and a much more in-your-face attitude.”

Nevertheless, the two became a couple in the comics. The obvious friction in their approach to missions, despite their devotion to each other, only adds to the fun. The movie will depict them still in the courtship phase, so expect some suggestive dialogue, if nothing else

And expect some familiar designs and motifs as well. Given the strip’s 1960s launch, it preceded – and informed – a lot of the sci-fi that followed. For one thing, a number of critics have pointed out (rightly) that someone at Industrial Light & Magic had Valerian handy when designing such things as the Millennium Falcon, Jabba’s palace, the abandoned temple on Yavin, Han Solo in carbonite, Leia’s slave-girl outfit, and other now-familiar “Star Wars” elements.

Valerian comics were almost a blueprint for both Star Wars and the more successful superhero movies, combining high-voltage action with situational humor and light romance. So what could go wrong?

Well, it might be too familiar to American audiences, who will assume Valerian is ripping off Star Wars, instead of the other way around. Or audiences might think Valerian is aping The Fifth Element – not only because the two movies have the same director, but because Valerian artist Mezieres was the visual inspiration for both.

Or the casting might not work. Some critics have already taken exception to Dane DeHaan’s Valerian – Entertainment Weekly calls him “all wrong,” and Variety calls him “a dud.” It must be said that DeHaan doesn’t much resemble his comics counterpart, being a bit on the young and scrawny side.

Cara Delevingne has rubbed some critics the wrong way, too. The Hollywood Reporter says she “needs to learn there is more to acting than smirking and eye-rolling.” Others have noted that she doesn’t have the requisite red hair, which seems like an unforced error.

But Variety calls Delevingne “sassy, sarcastic and spontaneous” and “cool enough for both of them.” Forbes says Valerian “shows what she can do when she’s allowed to act.” And she’s certainly got the attitude right, if one can judge from trailers.

Frankly, the critics can’t seem to make up their collective mind about this futuristic Nick and Nora. Forbes says “they are a lot of fun to spend time with,” whereas The Playlist calls them “paperweight placeholders for characters.”


STX Entertainment

In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the intergalactic city of Alpha is an ever-expanding metropolis comprised of thousands of different species from all corners of the universe. By most accounts, this sort of visual spectacle is the movie’s strong suit.

The same is true for the film overall. A lot of critics were blown away by Besson’s imagery, with Nerdist calling it “gorgeous,” and Variety reveling in the “cutting-edge and delightfully old-school” world-building. On the other hand, The Hollywood Reporter absolutely savaged the film, calling it “unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible and … an excellent sedative.” Entertainment Weekly calls it an “epic mess.” Even Rotten Tomatoes lists the critical reception a little more than a week before release as “no consensus yet.”

But the audience reviews listed at the same time were at 75 percent. That will change when the unwashed masses begin to chime in, but it must give Besson & Co. a confidence boost. And there’s always the international market to consider, which is usually receptive to visual spectacle and forgiving of the kind of storytelling flaws critics are finding in Valerian.

But however “fresh” the movie is eventually judged to be, it’s unlikely to reach Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming numbers. Space and time may be no barrier to Valerian and Laureline, but the U.S. box office looks to remain a pretty tough nut to crack for foreign comics adaptations.

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I don't think the problem is that the comic itself is from another country. I think the problem is that it isn't "presold" to very many U.S. moviegoers. I hadn't personally heard of Valerian until the trailer came out and I've been into comics for almost 60 years.

The only exception to my "presold" theory that comes to mind is the original X-Men movie, which mostly sold by word of mouth. The press and the general public had never previously heard of the X-Men even though they were top of the charts in the comics world. It was just a well-made action movie with very good special effects. Some of the original audience who weren't already comics fans were probably drawn by the casting of Halle Berry and Patrick Stewart. Iron Man, similarly unknown, drew initial crowds because of Robert Downey Jr. returning to a starring role after his initial fall from grace. Then the well-made movie brought in more people. Spider-Man and the Hulk were already known to the public and the other movies grew out of that.

I'm afraid that, like you said, the average moviegoer looking for science-fiction will be likely to think a lot of things are imitations of previous movies. Unless their socks are truly knocked off they won't be telling their friends to go see it.

There were X-Men and Iron Man cartoons in the 1990s, so those characters may have been more widely known at that point than we realise.

I know I watched Spider-Man, Superman and Batman cartoons, and the Superman and Batman shows, as a kid. I think I learned Superman's origin from the show.

Likewise, 1970s creators grew up with the Superman TV show, so they put Professor Pepperwinkle and Inspector Henderson into the comics.

It's my guess people went to see Superman Returns because they saw Christopher Reeve as Superman as a kid.

For some years now superhero movies have been a form of family movie. (I know there are exceptions.) Judge Dredd wasn't a family film, and the Stallone film may have poisoned the well. I've not seen the others.

A few years ago I gave my niece The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and she loved it. The DVD was in stock in an ordinary store. (I've still not seen it.)

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