Valerian on Screen: What got Left Behind?
A comparative essay looking at Valerian Et Laureline in comics form versus its film adaptation, Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets
While I realize this is outside the scope of Saturday Morning Cartoons fare, as an avid reader of French bande desinée (also known as "bédé") and of Christin and Mézieres' epic space opera comics series, Valerian et Laureline, I feel compelled to share my opinion on the topic. This series is not only a household name in France, these comics are the backbone of the French Sci-Fi genre, and seminal works of comics proper. The impact of these books is immense, so to finally get a summer blockbuster out this series is a real opportunity to share the thought-provoking and visually sumptuous virtues of the comics. But, as with many adaptations, many things got left out of the film, and, worse, lots got lost in translation from page to screen. My goal here is to address in broad strokes what (and whom) got left behind.
French Sci-Fi comics have barely been translated and brought to the States, despite their huge influence on American cinema and on Sci-Fi aesthetics as a whole. Only through Heavy Metal magazine has French comics publisher Dargaud's "Valerian et Laureline" come stateside for a brief run in 1981. Thankfully now with the Valerian movie an English run of the series is being produced by British publisher, Cinebook, though only the first 16 volumes have been released so far. And, momentously, Americans are finally beginning to acknowledge that our own beloved Star Wars saga ripped off some of its unique imagery from Valerian. Below is a page from the English translation of "Empire of a Thousand Planets" that showcases some of these undeniable similarities.
What is striking is that American exceptionalism, US-centrism, as well as American entitlement has fostered the myth that Americans are the real innovators within the Sci-Fi genre since Hollywood has produced the most popular blockbusters. I think upending this false assumption alone is a great reason for people to see Valerian: it helps us challenge our Hollywood-centric worldview by celebrating a visually-enveloping work of art funded by entities as varied as Chinese investors to New Zealand government, special effects crafted by Quebecois to Korean artists, scored by French composers; it is a work produced by a truly global network of international creators. The best part about this collective effort is that it reflects a similar ethos as the comics, in that it is our duty as intelligent life forms to learn about each other and celebrate our incredible diversity. There is a certain awe and wonder in the comics as well as in the film that can't help but make you feel happy to be a member of this thriving, wild universe we call home.
Yet the main faults with the film, other than incredibly dead dialogue, run almost parallel with the faults found in the comics. While there is cultural diversity and a powerful female lead, the lens through which this story is expressed can't help but re-inscribe the colonialist and sexist discourses it is trying so hard to escape. The redeeming quality of the comics, in contrast with the film, is that the dialogue appears to be self-aware in its portrayal of this problem in Sci-Fi at large, and was considered revolutionary in its time in particular for portraying Laureline as the true lead of the series. The film, sadly, plays it straight, and comes off as completely chauvinistic and colonialist.
In all honesty, the most striking example of this is that the title itself, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets", completely erases Laureline, even though she drives most of the plot. Not only that, but it exposes the fact that ultimately, the story is focused on the straight white male figure. By the end of the film this figure liberates the nature-focused, tribal alien species the imperialist human government tries to annihilate in a plot so similar to Avatar even the aliens in question are admittedly quite blue. Of course, it is Laureline's archetypal "feminine" empathy that changes Valerian's militaristic, macho mind, allowing for a magnanimity that can only be described as condescending and shallow, wholly embodying the white savior trope. Ultimately, the white protagonists "allow" the Other to exist, the "good" European colonialist is somehow necessary in the savages' liberation, through their opposition to the "bad" Europeans. Frankly, I would have much rather spent two and a half hours watching the Mül overthrow their human oppressors, or a film of just Laureline solving intergalactic crises. Instead, we get a moralizing tale about the need for white people to "do the right thing" and how ultimately the only people in real positions of power even 700 years in the future are still straight white men. While the comics admittedly engage in this colonialist narrative, the fact that the creators overtly regurgitated it is upsetting to say the least, given they had the opportunity to rise above their source material.
That said, the biggest sore spot in the film is the overt sexism. In particular, the overtly-gendered dynamic between Valerian and Laureline is practically unbearable to watch. In the comics, Valerian is frequently portrayed as a bit of a pompous tool that the writer and artist clearly poke fun of. In contrast, Laureline is the brains of the operation that manages to single-handedly keep Valerian's missions a success using her intelligence and wit. Yes, structurally this is problematic, which is reflected in the film, but growing up, I read the comics because Laureline was so cool and competent. She's the heart of the series, the one that ultimately keeps the ship on course and completes their missions because she's actually smart, whereas Valerian bumbles through everything and only manages to make it out alive with Laureline's faithful assistance. Ultimately, we're not meant to care about or even identify with Valerian. If anything, he's there as comic relief, as a foil to the hyper-competent Laureline.
My favorite part of this dynamic in the comics is that Valerian isn't played straight. The narrative makes clear that Valerian is at times a total asshole, and we are invited to laugh at his douchebaggery. Everybody knows an entitled man-child like this, and we get to chuckle at him as he gets injured, angers alien life forms, and fudges missions. And cheer as Laureline swoops in to pick up the pieces. And while the unjust power-dynamic of their work relationship is accepted as "the norm" and is assumed to persist well into the future, we aren't supposed to like Valerian. I would even go so far as to say that Valerian is a spoof similar to, but not as extreme as, Zapp Brannigan from Futurama, and is a delightfully French roast of a particular brand of casual, hypocritical misogyny that many Western readers would easily recognize.
Shockingly, this reading of Valerian's character is completely abandoned in the film. The audience is supposed to identify with Valerian and forgive his faults at every turn, chalking it up to his youth and cheeky arrogance, rather than laugh at his ineptitude. Watching director Besson entreat the viewer to side with such a turd is more than merely obnoxious. Considering Besson cites his fanboy-ing of this series back to when he was a ten-year-old, I imagine this critical subtext was lost on him, to the detriment of this adaptation. He cites Laureline as being a feminist icon, which I think Claire Delevigne handles fairly well, but the inequality between the two erodes this distinction.
Another critical failure in the film in terms of the lip service it plays to feminism is the romantic relationship inserted into the plot as a way to build character. Yes, the two characters end up falling in love. But ultimately, the comics about the work. As readers, we aren't generally interested in the romance, we want the obscure alien civilizations, fantastic planets, and spatio-temporal hijinks! The film could've walked this line, and it certainly attempted to, but by inserting a marriage proposal out of left field, the audience is left with none of the energy that comes from the "will-they-won't-they" dynamic that, while dated, at least makes sense when reading the books. Of course, to squash 21 albums of comics into one film certainly requires some condensing of plot points, but I wish they'd left this one out. Especially with how aggressively Dane DeHaan's Valerian treats Laureline, this aspect of the film becomes even more difficult to watch. Which once again speaks to the film's inherent sexism, leading us to the most uncomfortable subplot in the film, which unfortunately is enacted by a surprisingly complicit Rihanna.
What could've been a real opportunity to shed light on the plight of illegal aliens and victims of sex trafficking, Rihanna's character, Bubbles, is inserted into the film in probably the most degrading manner the writers could've imagined. She is a shape-shifting alien that got illegally transported to Alpha, the titular "City of a Thousand Planets", and is presumably being forced into sex slavery by a pimp played by Ethan Hawke. She wants to escape, but doesn't have the future-equivalent of a visa or passport, and voiced fears being killed by her pimp mark her captivity as particularly disturbing. After doing an uncomfortably drawn-out shape-shifting strip-tease for Valerian, which he thoroughly and thoughtlessly enjoys, our supposed hero conscripts her to help him break into an alien base using her shape-shifting abilities in exchange for legal papers. She obliges out of desperation and naïveté, and ultimately dies during this escapade, which is met with not a single shred of remorse from either Valerian or Laureline. (The tone problem of this episode in particular is the most cringe-inducing: these scenes read like a goofy adventure with a shape-shifting space wench, even making light of her lack of individuality and sense of self by posing her as a over-the-top, prima donna actress-type.) After her death, the film moves on as if absolutely nothing happened. Nobody learned anything, nobody's morality got questioned; Bubbles was used by the military just as she had been used by her pimp. This is the ultimate example of how this film plays lip service to such grand notions as multiculturalism and feminism but instead chooses to continue the status quo in a jarringly unaware fashion.
While the visuals of this film are a treat, particularly the glittering, androgynous inhabitants of the planet Mül, I felt myself shrinking back into my seat for the majority of the film. I couldn't help looking away from the screen to make wide-eyed "Oh-no-they-didn't" looks at my fellow film-goer who returned the same glances. At least when reading the comics, you can skim over parts that are problematic, or at the very least chalk it up to being written in the 60's and 70's. But when watching this film, you have to sit and watch the whole miserable affair unfold in HD (or 3D or 4D, depending on your tastes). No matter how pretty the characters are, no matter how cool the sets designs are, I couldn't shake the feeling that Besson and his team really didn't really understand the spirit of the comics since they couldn't capture its tongue-in-cheek humor. And, worse, that nobody working on the film thought to say anything against the rampant sexism and colonialism. If anything, this film showcases just how far we still have to go before we really catch up with the future. And it is overt, given they even left Laureline behind in the title.