Luc Besson has made his first James Bond film. Well, in a manner of speaking.
His source material, the Franco-Belgian serialized comic Valérian et Laureline (1967-2010), was created in the mid-1960s, when the Connery Bond films were gangbusters at the box office and Eurospy thrillers, often little more than cheaply produced Bond rip-offs, were sweeping across Europe (Fig. 1). To name but two instances: in France, Jean Bruce’s popular OSS 117 novels, while precursors to Ian Fleming’s, became a highly successful film series thanks in large part to the popularity of Bond media; and in Italy, the famous comic duo of Franco e Ciccio jumped on the bandwagon with trashy 007 spoofs like Due mafiosi contro Goldginger/ Two Mafiosos Against Goldfinger (Simonelli, 1965) and 002: operazione Luna/ 002: Operation Moon (Fulci, 1965) (Fig. 1).
Colorist Eveline Tranlé, writer Pierre Christin, and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières moved to capitalize on the Bond craze by focusing their stories on the adventures of two agents of the “Spatio-Temporal Service,” Valerian, often described by critics as a “Bond in space,” and his partner, Laureline. Like Bond, they work to protect the interests of an empire. Earth, with Galaxity as its capital, reigns over a peaceful, liberal humanist galactic imperium, its population living in a perpetual state of leisure made possible by VR technology.
In the initial series, Les mauvais rêves/Bad Dreams (Nov. ’67-Feb. ’68), the authors combine Bond-style exotic travel and grand, devious schemes hatched by arch-villain Xombul (Fig. 2) with the sci-fi elements of space- and time-travel, two narrative devices largely eschewed by the Earth- and period-bound stories of the 007 saga. (The lone exception, of course, is 1979’s Moonraker, in which 007 rides a space shuttle into Earth’s orbit.)
In the second half of a two-part sequel to Bad Dreams, Terre en flammes/ Earth in Flames (April ’69-July ’69) (Fig. 3), Xombul makes his return, and Valerian must travel to Earth’s past to thwart his plan to conquer the galaxy with a fleet of space-time machines.
The third album, L’empire des mille planètes/ Empire of a Thousand Planets (Oct. ’69-March ’70), is of particular interest to Besson’s project. Besson borrows some of its title, as well as its (shall we say) Bondian approach to storytelling. The story sees Laureline and Valerian confront the riddle of the enigmatic “Authority,” leaders of Syrte-the-Magnificent, capital city of a potentially hostile empire (Fig. 4).
Key to the momentum that Empire of a Thousand Planets develops is the intrigue, the basic curiosity we feel by virtue of the comic’s epistemic plotting. According to narratologist Marie-Laure Ryan, this narrative form is driven above all by a desire to know, to solve a mystery. Quite common in spy, sci-fi, and spy-fi fiction, it creates an erotetic narrative experience; viewers or readers are cued to formulate questions, and the plot follows the protagonists as they slowly make discoveries. Laureline and Valerian must piece together what information they can about the Authority’s identity and ultimate ambitions.
Often, these narratives are of the “slow-burn” variety; they call upon us to be patient and to expect a story laden with delay tactics, internal cliffhangers, “dead-ends” and red herrings, looser episodes that send the protagonist(s) this way and that, MacGuffins or “weenies” (objects that seem, at first, to be of interest, but that merely string us along), not to mention such contrivances as last-minute twists (which play on surprise, where unexpected turns of fortune abruptly wrap things up in a story’s final moments) and Sherlockian explanations (which rely on the pleasures of the “operational,” where the protagonist details the intricacies of the villain’s scheme and the steps taken to foil it). As “lowly” as they may be, these devices are central to the “slow-burn” aesthetic of popular media.
Bond movies like Dr. No (Young, 1962) show how effective the slow-burn strategy can be. Director Terence Young and his screenwriters suspend epistemic–and by extension, emotional–payoffs. For much of the film’s run-time, the Connery character is a sleuth, collecting available clues. This creates anticipation, arouses one’s curiosity about the elusive Dr. No and his operation on the supposedly dragon inhabited isle of Crab Key.
Like many Bond stories and the original Valérian et Laureline comics, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets offers viewers a sleuth-on-the-winding-trail narrative. In one of the opening scenes, Valerian (Dane Dahaan) has a vision, one that, for viewers, serves to pose a few questions: what happened to the humanoids of the planet Mül, whose utopic world, it would appear, is being destroyed by projectiles and a careening spaceship pounding the surface of their planet? And how did Valerian come to dream of the Mül’s apparent demise? Was the dream somehow sent to him? Sent out to investigate, Laureline and Valerian pursue a “weenie”–a “converter” (Fig. 5), the sole survivor of the planet, or so it seems–in search of answers.
In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the trail winds far too wildly. When Laureline and Valerian finally reach its end, and solve the mystery of the assault on Mül, Besson gives us a Sherlockian moment, and handles it with some zip. His hyperactive camera wraps around the duo, creating a visual figure that mimics the dramatic “tying up of loose ends” we hear on the dialogue track. The scene is no better, and no worse, than what we see in your typical episode of Scooby Doo, which is to say, it’s all very innocent and works well enough. But as Laureline and Valerian wind their way on their epistemic journey, the intrigue behind the mystery becomes diluted. The plot moves along in clunky fashion, swinging us between scenes that remind us–for that’s all they do–of Laureline and Valerian’s ongoing investigation and sequences featuring long, disconnected action set-pieces. Some of these thrill-rides are damn exhilarating in and of themselves—such as when Valerian has to get from one end of the City of a Thousand Planets to the other, through countless membranes, liquids, structures, and apertures (Fig. 6)–but the result is a plot that all too often feels pointless, clogged with empty thrills.
Since the founding of EuropaCorp in 1999, Besson, a major stakeholder in the studio, has worked to create a peculiar (and ofter rather successful) blockbuster formula that somehow manages to be both thrill-laden and “lean.” His scripts efficiently repurpose and remix familiar scenarios and genres, strip them to their basic elements (on the assumption that viewers will rely on their previous exposure to movies to follow along and even fill out the details), and combine these recycled forms with hyper-inflated, unrepentantly over-choreographed action sequences that are so implausibly drawn out that they divert attention (when they work) from the gaps and flaws of the scripting. In the Bessonian blockbuster, we have less a story that the gist of a story, so that what occupies our attention is the scintillating, high-octane, oddball experiences of his action, where we become disengaged from the whys and wherefores of the plot, and causal narration is permitted almost to collapse.
This strategy–let’s call it edgy classicism (strange, nervous, unsettled, but still committed to cause-effect plotting in some ways)–works just fine in such movies as Banlieue 13/District 13 (Morel, 2004, screenplay by Besson). But in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this loose interpretation of classical narration clashes with the attempt, as imperceptible as it may often seem, to craft a taut, erotetic (question and answer) narrative. And at two hours and twenty minutes, the film has a pretty hefty run time for a Bessonian blockbuster–Banlieue 13 and Lucy (Besson, 2014) clock in at one hour and thirty or less). This bloated frame creates space for Besson to add on yet more audio-visual thrills–far more than a plot that hopes to generate at least some classical intrigue can hope to sustain. Much less of a time commitment and much more effective in selling readers on their central riddles, Valérian et Laureline comics never make one feel so antsy.
Tossed in with the protracted action scenes and periodic reminders of the Mül mystery is something quite unique for a EuropaCorp blockbuster: a fully developed romantic subplot. Besson’s blockbusters, lean and “masculinist,” often resist the Hollywood convention of telling dual-focus stories in which one of the protagonist’s goals is linked to romantic coupling (see all of the “lone wolf” movies Besson has scripted over the last fifteen years—from Taken and Transporter, to Banlieue 13 and Lucy). Unlike Besson’s previous blockbuster protagonists, Dane DaHaan’s Valerian is a notorious carouser, but his budding affection for Cara DeleVingne’s Laureline (Fig. 7) convinces him, as the movie rolls on, that he should consider settling down. Besson plots the development of this secondary goal in “classical” fashion and fairly well; too bad, then, that the casting of DaHaan undermines the whole effort. Despite all his attempts to convince us that Valerian has a Bondian backstory–one scene makes light of all of this previous flings–Besson fails to transform DaHaan into a credible “Bond in space.” (DeleVingne, it should be said, is superb—perhaps the best reason to think this franchise has a future.)
In the end, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an uneasy experiment for Besson, an attempt, mixed to say the least, to meld his edgy classicism with the “tight” epistemic plotting of spy and spy-fi stories and a straightforward romance of the sort that made Valérian et Laureline a comic that sought, on some level, to explore the narrative and generic possibilities of a “Bond in space.”