We’re supposedly living in a halcyon era for (extreme sarcasm quotes) “geek culture,” but I sometimes wonder how true that is. Sure, science fiction and fantasy dominate film and television screens and you can confess to reading comic books without fear of ridicule, but a lot of that success has been built on the back of known entities and established ‘brands.’ Already popular characters like Spider-Man and Batman paved the way for sprawling comic book universes to play out on screen, and series like Star Wars and Harry Potter were hardly obscure curiosities prior to this supposed geek revolution. Yeah, your mom might know what the hell an Infinity Stone is now, but outside of the established framework of a popular series, there still seems to be a tendency to look down our noses towards the more genuinely oddball stuff when it does come around. Weirdo passion projects like Pacific Rim, John Carter, and Jupiter Ascending have either underperformed or been catastrophic bombs, and while we can debate each of their relative qualities, none of them were any worse than Batman v Superman, and people, y’know, actually saw that one. I saw all of that because last week I was invited to see some early footage of another weirdo passion project and despite the fact that it looks positively stunning, without being connected to a major brand, I have no idea if people will pay it any mind. That passion project is Luc Besson’s Valerian.
Wow. Being a teaser, this is trading more in visuals and tone than in character or plot, but boy oh boy are the visuals and tone working for me. As far as space operas go, Valerian looks positively sprawling. In this short trailer we no less than a dozen different environments and at least half-a-dozen alien species, and that, as director Luc Besson assured us, is just scratching the surface. According to him, there are over 100 different alien species in the film, and that humans only account for a very small percentage of the total characters we meet. Back when Mass Effect (of which this film shares some aesthetic similarity) came out in 2007, BioWare talked about how in a video game they were able to create a world in which humans were a minority, something that you couldn’t really do in film. Ten years later, that’s exactly what Luc Besson set out to do, but it took some time to realize that something like this was even possible.
The film is based on a series of French comic books called Valérian and Laureline that Besson fell in love with at the age of ten and would go on to influence his work on films like The Fifth Element. But even as the work influenced him, it took him a long time to arrive at the idea of adapting Valérian and Laureline to film; in fact, for the longest time, he didn’t think it was even possible to do so. It was only after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, Besson said, that he felt this story could be told. Suddenly, the only limit was your own imagination.
And while much ballyhoo has been made about Avatar’s visual spectacle, Valerian already stands apart, showcasing incredible diversity in environments and alien species that far exceeds anything we saw in Cameron’s film. It also helps that much more of Valerian’s world was created practically. While the film has its fair share of CGI (something in the ballpark of 2,800 visual effects shots), we got to see some behind the scenes footage showing off some of the impressive practical sets created for the film.
But ultimately, a film needs to be more than visuals. Avatar may have made all the money in the world overnight, but it just as quickly vanished from our pop culture consciousness because there was no substance to it. For Valerian, it’s too soon to tell. The footage we were shown focussed primarily on introducing us to the setting of this grand adventure, but it was hard to get a read on any of its characters. We got to see a few moments of Cara Delevingne being a badass – like when she tricks, then subdues a pair of prison guards that are escorting her to her cell – but as for Dane DeHaan, I still have reservations about him as a leading man, and I didn’t see enough of him in the footage to affect that opinion one way or the other.
Regardless, I’m intrigued. I’m not familiar with the Valerian comics the film is based on, but the footage we saw, combined with Besson’s electric enthusiasm is enough to convince me that this is one to keep an eye on. It appears to be the exact kind of grand, sweeping science fiction I love, and I can’t wait to see more of it. Hopefully other people dig it too.