For all its eye-popping visual spectacle, lurid design aesthetic and bizarre setting, there’s one thing about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that really sets it apart from the recent crop of science fiction (would-be) blockbusters: it posits a hopeful future.
Certainly the 28th century inhabited by daring special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) has its share of dangers and villains, but it’s also a colourful and exciting world where the chief goals of the society depicted are discovery and communication – a far cry from our now-familiar dystopias.
Director Luc Besson first encountered the characters in the French comic, Valerian and Laureline, as a child, and was struck by more than just the ambitious designs and daring adventures. Now, after having used the original strip as inspiration for his 1997 film, The Fifth Element, he’s brought the actual characters to the big screen for the first time.
“I was very interested by the theme,” he tells us. “There’s a kind of kindness in the ’70s about living together and not seeing the aliens as always the bad guys. Valerian and Laureline go on the case, but they always learn something, they always discover people. It’s an exploration, really, rather than a demonstration of power.”
The overt demonstration of martial power, as evinced by the tsunami of superhero films released over the past decade or so, is something that Besson has grown weary of. “All of that is propaganda, very American, to show how powerful they are. And when you watch closely, all those superhero films, we’re just like this -” he raises his hands and cowers as in fear. “- because the building’s gonna fall on us and we’re so glad the American was there to protect us.”
However, as a purveyor of awesome spectacle himself, he admits, “…when they’re good they’re pretty good, but we’ve got one almost every week now.”
Still, Besson’s narrative instincts took him in the opposite direction. “The film is about living together.”
Thus we have the movie’s key setting, Alpha, a massive space station adrift in the universe, a conglomeration of human and alien ships and habitats. Crucially, it’s not a warship or a battle station, but a kind of intergalactic UN, where millions of intelligent creatures from thousands of species can come together to share knowledge. Visually, it’s a staggering achievement in the film. Conceptually, it’s a bold, if unsubtle, tribute to diversity and communication.
“The future is a white page,” Besson states. “Why are we putting our worst fear on it? Why don’t we dream about it? Maybe it won’t be able to be as beautiful as that, but let’s try, at least! You have to dream. The past is written, the present, we’re dealing with it – let’s have the future the way we dream about it.”
And so naturally, Besson’s villains are the conservative counter-argument to that egalitarian, hopeful ideal: avaricious businessmen and paranoid military commanders who buck at the notion of welcoming anyone with open arms or giving anything away for free.
“It’s the reflection of society today,” he says. “We had a big shift a couple of decades ago. For many, many centuries, human was number one and business was number two. Recently, a few decades ago, we just switched the thing and put business first and humans second. You know what? That’s not in the order of nature. We are a human race and we have to protect ourselves together. As long as we put business first, as long as you are able to ruin thousands of families just to get one more dollar on the account, it can’t work – it’s impossible.”
But rather than show the downward spiral of late capitalism, Valerian illustrates a hopeful world that lies on the other side of it. “It shows a future where we’re sharing – we’re sharing with aliens! We’re humans, you know, but we’re sharing our culture with aliens! That’s the future. I’m sure that the day the aliens come, everybody will feel like brothers.”
Sign us up.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is in cinemas now and is reviewed here.