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Joseph Brooker on ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’

Joseph Brooker on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

An early sequence in this film sees the title character, special agent Valerian, on a desert plain dotted with people. Thanks to a hi-tech implant he is also experiencing what seems to be a virtual reality: a vast multi-level bazaar called Big Market (not necessarily modelled on its near namesake in Newcastle) populated by garish creatures and enthusiastic shoppers. As Valerian tumbles into gun-battles in this apparently imaginary place, it is not easy to discern anyone’s motives; but the narrative difficulty is doubled by the fact that we regularly cut back to the calm desert where his partner Laureline is casually walking around him. The juxtaposed spheres of space are hard cognitively to unify. This didn’t make me feel encouraged about my chances of following this film, but it did feel like a distinctive approach to narrative. In retrospect I realized that it was also a model of the production of this whole spectacular feature film: the characters in the desert are equivalent to the actors before the computer-generated imagery has been thrown up around them. One of the lead actors had commented, before the premiere, that they were interested to see what the film looked like: the apparent implication was that its world had been as invisible to them as Big Market is to Laureline. 

Luc Besson’s 137-minute film is derived from a science fiction comic book that ran in France from 1967 to 2010. Evidently a much-loved part of the bande desinée culture, but little known in the Anglosphere, it has inspired a vast French-centred production with the largest budget ever spent on a European film. The story pivots on the planet Mul, which an early sequence shows us to be an agrarian utopia inhabited by elegant grey humanoids so benignly pacific they might recall the decadent Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). This race comes to be referred to as ‘Pearls’; their civilization also centres on the pearls that they fish from the sea and that can generate matter and energy.  In the 28th century AD, Mul’s utopia is disrupted by war above the planet: a space battle between humans and another species sends starships crashing explosively down through orbit. To save the humans’ cause in battle, their commander orders the firing of fusion missiles, which defeat the alien fleet but also destroy Mul. It is a narrative nuance that the Pearls’ world is destroyed not by deliberate colonization but by accident: they are collateral damage in the maintenance of human influence in the galaxy.

Commander Filitt, little troubled by these consequences and played by a peculiarly cantankerous Clive Owen, goes on to take charge of an immense space station, Alpha, which is also infiltrated by the small group of Pearls who survived their planet’s destruction.  These survivors are interested not in revenge on humanity but in engineering the recreation of their lost world. This they achieve at the end, though Filitt has tried to destroy them to cover up his previous crimes. The Pearls are ultimately helped in this goal by military agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who go through a series of space opera scrapes on the way to the denouement of these central, somewhat ethically charged issues.

Alpha is one of the film’s finest ideas: an abundance of interlocking platforms and craft, a mechanical world that grows as though organically. The film briefly describes its zones, but doesn’t give a full sense of its diversity as a space. But, getting some of its best moments out of the way as early as possible, the picture starts with a montage showing Alpha’s origins, in near-Earth collaboration between different human ethnicities. Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern astronauts come on board and shake hands: as the years tick past in a corner of the screen, these are followed by a series of extra-terrestrial races, at the end of which Alpha has become too big for Earth’s orbit and sets off to a new berth 700 million miles across the galaxy. The ‘city of a thousand planets’ is thus akin to the cosmopolitan description of London as ‘the world in a city’. But it’s one of the far-fetched film’s most charming gestures to tie this development back into a real event in human history, starting it all off with real footage of astronauts and cosmonauts harmoniously docking in 1975. Behind all this David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ plays, if anything an excessively obvious choice: why not ‘Loving the Alien’ or ‘New Killer Star’?

Evidently the film partakes in what the novelist and critic Adam Roberts has named as one of science fiction’s great themes: alterity, and the way that the extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ can help to reimagine earthly difference and vice versa. In its treatment of the Pearls the film takes a solid enough stand for the rights of an oppressed species. Yet it’s fair to add that the narrative deals with alterity on its own, limited terms. The oppressed species is an elegant grey humanoid (with an excessively cutesy mascot animal): the equivalent perhaps of what ecologists call charismatic mammals, while the protagonists are thoroughly human – for that matter white and heterosexual with American accents. (The senior human seen in the film, though, is a government minister played by an African-American: the jazz musician Herbie Hancock. He looks pretty well, considering that he was already considered a veteran cameo when he played on a Simple Minds record in 1982.) The closest to a central figure of otherness is the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble, a self-declared ‘illegal immigrant’ who when assuming conveniently human form looks exactly like the pop singer Rihanna. If pushing the critique of the film’s lack of imagination of otherness, you could question why Bubble – who seems naturally to be a blue blob – has to take such photogenic human form, even at the moment of death. But perhaps such questions aren’t meant to be insisted on too much in an episodic space opera like this.

The casual viewer of that sub-genre could reasonably think that this film resembles Star Wars. A galactic nightclub of aliens (as in A New Hope and The Force Awakens), a space battle above a planet (Return of the Jedi, Rogue One), a fat alien crime lord (Return of the Jedi), robot soldiers somewhat more efficient than those in Attack of the Clones, squads of uniformed officials in control rooms and corridors (passim, though the ‘Federation’ here is more in tune with Star Trek); the superficial resemblance is plain enough, and even extends to the heroes tumbling down a garbage chute inside a space station. Yet – even though the original comic book is said to have been one of the young George Lucas’s many sources – it doesn’t feel like Star Wars, lacking that saga’s Manichean frame and the sense of momentousness it brings even to what would seem daft derring-do by the standards of other aesthetics. There is always something more picaresque about Valerian, as though it’s making itself up as it goes along; the freewheeling flavour may well relate somehow to the source material, closer to Barbarella than The Empire Strikes Back. As Valerian tells Bubble at one point when she protests the need for method acting and rehearsal: there’s no harm in a bit of improvisation.

That seems potentially a gentle joke about Rihanna as anxious thespian. But the actors from non-traditional backgrounds are certainly not a significant problem in this world of spectacle. ‘Model / actress’ seems to have become a satirical Lost in Showbiz phrase for C-list celebrities who do little of note, but Cara Delevingne here is a successful model who seems more than adequate as an actress too. Nothing in her performance – physically energetic, punctuated with wryness at her partner – makes her seem a dabbling amateur. She even turns out to have creditably sung the song over the closing credits, which I’d been thinking sounded like Sophie Ellis-Bextor. If only it were a cover of ‘Loving the Alien’.

by Joseph Brooker, September 2017

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