Whether you're new to sci-fi, or space opera, or esoteric French comics, or are just not deeply knowledgeable on the genre -- I've got you covered! Being thrown into a new world or setting can sometimes be daunting and off putting, especially when the viewer has no connection or basis to be drawn into the story. I shall remedy this by providing succinct packets of information that you can download directly into your inquisitive brain as a primer to prepare you for Luc Besson's spectacle Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Warning: This guide contains potential conjecture based spoilers.
So let's jump right in . . .
The Inspiration - 'Valérian and Laureline'
Comic book properties are hot today! Almost to the point of oversaturation (Marvel & DC). It's a medium so hot that the film industry is even willing to bet big on French science fiction comics. Just above I called these comics 'esoteric' . . . if esoteric means selling 10 million copies worldwide! So that was just a little wordplay on my part. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is inspired by the French comic Valérian and Laureline that was the brainchild of writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières in 1967 and ran (in various forms) until 2010.
Comprised of 20 books (or 'albums') each coming in at 50-60 pages, the entire Valérian and Laureline epic is approximately 1100+ pages of epic, illustrated storytelling. It combines elements of classic science fiction, space opera, and time travel. The comic had significant influence over movies such as Star Wars and The Fifth Element (also made by Luc Besson), and as some of the movie's promotional material has stated, it has "inspired a generation" of filmmakers despite it not being well known on this side of the Atlantic.
How much is the film industry willing to bet? €197 million ($176 million) . . . the most expensive French produced film by almost a factor of three. Obviously not all the money is coming from French sources, but Valerian was produced and primarily filmed in France, and a large group of individuals and companies are taking an enormous risk.
The Mastermind - Luc Besson
French native Luc Besson is no stranger to cinema or Hollywood, being involved in over 90 films as writer, director, and/or producer. He's produced many entertaining classics over the years, across all genres: La Femme Nikita (1990), Léon: The Professional (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), Lucy (2014), and helped create the Taken (2009) franchise with his own particular set of skills.
In the case of Valerian he's wearing the hats of writer, director, and producer on the project that originally started back in 2012.
In 1991 Besson worked with Jean-Claude Mézières to produce concept art for pre-production of his project The Fifth Element. Mézières actually suggested the director use some visual elements from Valérian and Laureline to be included in the film. Presumably this early working relationship led to Besson's eventual desire to one day bring Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to the screen.
Besson is feverishly working to finish post-production, as there are a reported 2700 special effects shots that need to be completed and polished . . . the same amount present in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Plot - Space Opera Through and Through
Here is the official synopsis for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:
"In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special operatives charged with keeping order throughout the human territories. On assignment from the Minister of Defense, the two undertake a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where species from across the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence, and culture. At the center of Alpha is a mysterious dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe."
Let's see if we can read between the lines and flesh this plot out a little more based on the exhaustive comics.
Due to the sheer volume of Valérian and Laureline works (1100+ pages of comics) it would be impossible for Luc Besson to adapt the entire series into one movie . . . and probably not even in 20 movies! He has confirmed that Valerian is loosely based on the sixth album of the epic series, Ambassador of the Shadows, which was released in 1975. In that album the action takes place in the city of Point Central, which has been renamed Alpha in this case. In the comic Valérian and Laureline discover that the peaceful co-existence of the aliens in Point Central are being disrupted and manipulated by mysterious aliens called Shadows. So it's only safe to conjecture that the nemesis in this new space opera mimics something close to those aliens. But are the Shadows truly a nemesis, and will they look/act like the aliens in the comic? Additionally, many of the aliens and creatures, as well as their physical appearances, that are in Ambassador of the Shadows appear in the film. More on that later (see The Menagerie section below).
Even though time travel is a common plot device in the comics, there doesn't appear to be any evidence that it will be utilized in this film.
- Ambassador of the Shadows, full summary (possible spoilers)
The Hero - Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian
Valerian was born in the late 27th century in the city of Galaxity, the capital of the Terran Galactic Empire (TGE) on Earth. He joined the Spatio-Temporal Service as an agent in 2713. Agents protect the planets of the TGE against temporal (time) paradoxes as well as other threats throughout the galaxy. He is characterized as your archetypical hero: square jawed, strong, brave, obedient to a fault, loyal, a man of action, and one that operates independently. But don't tell his co-agent Laureline that!
The Valérian portrayed in the comic appears to be older than the Valerian (note difference in accents on the 'e') portrayed in this film. This may lead to credibility issues with viewers who may question the skillset of a veteran spatio-temporal agent portrayed by someone who looks just out of his teens.
The Heroine - Cara Delevingne as Laureline
Laureline was born in 11th century France. While Valérian is on a spatio-temporal mission during that time period on Earth, she rescues him and discovers he's a time traveller. To protect the Spatio-Temporal Service he is forced to bring her back to 28th century Galaxity where she eventually becomes an agent herself. She and Valerian have served side by side for two years.
In the comic Laureline often takes a more passive role, but can also be rebellious when her determination is pushed. She also provides her counterbalance of superior intelligence and rationalization to Valerian's "man of action" tendencies, and often uses her sex appeal as a fall back tactic when things get especially dicey.
The Ship - Astroship XB982 (The Intruder)
Any science fiction story that's set in space and worth its salt needs a good spaceship as a sidekick. Yes, in this genre spaceships can be sidekicks and even characters! Valerian is no exception, and one might consider the ship to be the third character of the film. The XB982 sets the precedence for the classic Millennium Falcon, which bears a striking resemblance to the saucer shaped XB982 with roughly the same dimensions and blue glowing engines at the rear.
In the comic, Astroship XB982 is able to traverse both space and time, and the version in the movie physically looks the same. As mentioned above there's no evidence in the trailer that time travel will take place despite the ship's ability to do so. Astroship XB982 first made its debut in 1969’s The Great Collector comic.
I've heard that the ship will not be given the Astroship XB982 designation in the film (it does sound a bit too pulp for me), and will instead be called The Intruder. It was manufactured in China in the early 28th century. It's equipped with an on-board supercomputer designated 'Alex.' Like any great sidekick, Alex assists the duo on their mission, giving them valuable information with a dry sense of humor and pulling their feet out of the fire with occasional heroics.
The Commander - Clive Owen as Arün Filitt
Arün Filitt appears to be Valerian and Laureline's commander, guiding them on their missions . . . in this case giving them less than ten hours to find and stop the threat to Alpha.
The commander may play a role similar to that of the ambassador character from Ambassador of the Shadows. When Luc Besson announced Owen being in the film, he tweeted a picture of the Ambassador from the comic Ambassador of the Shadows, which is said to be the basis of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. What Filitt's ultimate role is in the film is yet to be seen, but at least initially Besson planned to model him off a character from the comic.
The Setting - Alpha: City of a Thousand Planets
Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets, is not a literal location comprised of 1000 planets, but a space city/station that lies at the crossroads of galactic civilization and serves as a meeting place for the alien societies of 1000 planets (including Earth). They are gathered in this enormous space-city of shifting structures, pulsing colors, and exotic aliens . . . all living in peace, prosperity, and cooperation. Perhaps too idyllic for some forces in the galaxy.
Alpha, called Point Central in the comics, is where each race constructs its own "segment" that is attached to the city. Each species tailors their segment's environment to their specific needs. Whether Alpha will specifically mimic this feature in detail remains to be seen, as it appears aliens are mingling quite frequently in the trailers.
Much of the action will take place on the City of a Thousand Planets as Valerian and Laureline traverse through these segments, encounter a mélange of bizarre aliens, and investigate the threat to their universe.
The Threat - The Shadows?
All that's been provided in the trailers, and the synopsis, is that there's some internal threat to Alpha, home to millions of aliens. It could be the Shadows from the comic, or it could be something entirely new. My bet is that it's something entirely new, but perhaps still using the name Shadows. The Shadows in the comic are actually quite benign and their physical appearance from the comic appears to have been assigned to another race in the movie. It's the biggest enigma of the movie . . . which is a good thing!
Even if I knew what the threat was I wouldn't reveal it. This is a primer after all, not a spoiler list!
Below is a menagerie of characters and denizens from the Valerian movie universe. Many of them first appeared in Ambassador of the Shadows and also appear in Valerian, either unchanged or with changes in names and/or characteristics.
Melo the Converter
This creature was taken directly from Valérian and Laureline album six, Ambassador of the Shadows, where it was called a "grumpy converter" from the planet Bluxte. It retains its look and characteristics for the film.
The last living specimen of its kind, a Mul Converter, Melo has the ability to ingest any reasonably sized object and replicate it hundreds of times. Replication by pooping . . . take that Star Trek! It can come in very handy during missions and negotiations.
Megaptors are reptilian creatures from planet Kirian in Dimension 2. They're carnivores protected by an impervious carapace of scales and have claws which can slice the most resistant of metals.
They are also able to disconnect their nerve endings while chasing prey, making them insensitive to pain and fatigue.
In spite of the danger megaptors represent, some criminals dream of owning one for their personal use. But only the most ruthless can domesticate such a creature.
Igon Siruss is a Kodhar'Khan, born in 2690 on Karkos, a small, inhospitable moon orbiting planet Kirian in Dimension 2.
Igon is already the most-feared pirate in the galaxy, and the humans' most wanted criminal, when he comes face-to-face with Valerian and Laureline.
He is the galaxy's public enemy number one.
This race can be seen prominently in the various Valerian trailers, and are taken directly from the Ambassador of the Shadows comic . . . albeit with what appears to be some changes.
The Pearls are a peaceful, holistic race who live in harmony with the elements. The Pearls are fishermen who give back to their planet as much as they take from it.
The Kortan Dahuk
The Kortan Dahuk are humanoid aliens from planet Kas-onar, an intergalactic paradise with three suns.
Kortan Dahuk are famously sensitive to music and sounds. They invented "sound sculptures" for long distance communication, healing, and space travel. The beauty of sound sculptures stems from their being powerfully linked to their musicality. The Kortan Dahuk are as interested in what the sound produces as what sound is produced.
The Omelites are expert programmers and have developed a society based on advanced information technology. Their species has no predators and has almost complete control over its planet.
On Alpha, the Omelites offered to update the humans' IT systems, which they found obsolete. The World Science Council agreed to their proposal and the Omelites have been responsible ever since for IT development and maintenance. They keep Alpha at the cutting edge of technology and security.
The Azin Mo
Azin Mo, from the planet Nojima, are intergalactically famous for their extraordinary cellular materialization and regeneration abilities. The species' astonishing gifts are counterbalanced by moments of extreme vulnerability. Over centuries, they have been a favorite target of mercenaries and space pirates.
The Azin Mo are Alpha's official doctors. Their medical skills and peaceable manner make them one of the most popular species on the City of a Thousand Planets.
In Ambassador of the Shadows this race was called the Bagoulin and look essentially unchanged (physically) for the film.
The Boulan-Bathor have genuine ambitions and a sense of entitlement that perfectly complement their business sense. They are never slow to use their economic influence to ensure that the right political decisions are made, particularly in terms of preserving their monopoly and elitism, which are foundation stones of Boulan-Bathor society.
Anti-riot combat androids with a reputation for ruthless efficiency that serve as a police force for Alpha's Council of Elders. K-Tron's are durable, unstoppable, precise, and practically indestructible.
The Doghan Daguis
The Doghan Daguis are a direct transfer and renaming of the Shingouz aliens from the comic Ambassador of the Shadows, retaining their look and characteristics.
The Doghan Daguis come into the world as triplets whose thoughts are shared. All three must be present for a triplet to make any sense.
Speaking 1200 alien languages and over 500 computer languages, they wield an extreme amount of influence on Alpha.
Bromosaurs are enormous creatures that graze on the seabed of their native planet, Blaafarn. Their respiratory systems filter water and expels it in purified form. The purification process attracts a very fragile animal with exceptional sensorial powers, the Mylea jellyfish, which can read minds, enabling bromosaurs to communicate as if they are logged into a huge computer network. The two species have live in complete harmony for centuries, until Valerian and Laureline come along . . .
Next Stop: 'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets'
So, we've reached the end. There's not much else I can add without just telling you to start digging very deeply on your own . . . or begin reading 1100+ pages of comics.
Only the future will tell if Valerian is a hit. But based on Besson's last sci-fi film, The Fifth Element, it's almost guaranteed to be a crazy ride. So hop on board The Intruder and watch Valerian and Laureline save the galaxy!