PARIS, July 16, (AFP): It may as yet be obscure in the English-speaking world, but the comic book series on which the new mega-budget film “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is based has long been the thinking kid’s favourite elsewhere.
The sci-fi heroes on which “Fifth Element” director Luc Besson is betting his reputation — and a colossal $180-million (158-million euro) budget — have fascinated generations of European children.
The French film-maker was swept away by the time-travelling “spatio-temporal agents” Valerian and Laureline as a 10-year-old reader of the legendary comic Pilote, edited by “Asterix” creator Rene Goscinny, in which the strip first appeared.
These were not the usual macho superheroes straight from Marvel central casting, but thinking liberal humanists with a green conscience — the most cerebral of shoot-’em-up heroes.
Long before Hollywood discovered female empowerment, Laureline was not only outsmarting her enemies, she was also always one step ahead of Valerian, her brave, kind, but definitely dimmer sidekick.
Their creators, artist Jean-Claude Mezieres and writer Pierre Christin, told AFP that that they were delighted Besson’s live-action feature respects their characters’ “humanist and anti-racist” spirit.
Among only a handful of people to have already seen the film, which is due for release in the US on July 21, the pair described the movie as “spectacular with lots of battles and pyrotechnics”.
“I was a little worried that it would end up looking like an American sci-fi film, the usual battle between good and evil with good winning in the end,” said Christin.
“We always wanted the books to be adapted for the screen, but a good comic strip doesn’t always make a good film.
“I see now I needn’t have worried,” said the 78-year-old author.
Although the film is not a direct adaptation, “there isn’t a gap between the film and our books which would lead us to say, ‘We would never do anything like that,’” said Mezieres, who is also 78.
Besson got the idea from the get-go, he said. “He was one of our readers when he was 10 so we never needed to explain to him who Valerian was. He understood.”
Neither of the creators were directly involved in the movie, the most expensive independent production ever.
“I don’t think it would have been a good idea for us to do the script,” Christin insisted.
“I never like working again on things that I have already done.”
The friends began the 23-book series in 1967 with pretty conventional storylines. But “Valerian and Laureline” quickly found its warp mode when the plots began to deal with big universal questions, often with cheeky humour.
Christin and Mezieres’ aesthetic and the world they created, with its emphasis on tolerance, optimism and perseverance, would later be credited with having a major influence on “Star Wars” and Besson’s own “The Fifth Element”.
Having already sold five million copies of their books worldwide, they hope a Hollywood blockbuster might bring more Asian and English-speaking fans into the fold in time for their 24th book, which will be published in French later this year.
Mezieres said the sets for “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” rely heavily on artwork from their books, but he was pleased at how they managed to “move them on”.
His only major quibble was with the casting of the blonde British model Cara Delevingne as the red-headed Laureline.
“I was a bit reticent about that,” he admitted. “There are not exactly tons of models who go on to to become good actresses.
However, she has proved him wrong, he said. “Cara Delevingne wanted to become an actress and she becomes one in this film,” he said.
With its $180 million budget, two relatively new stars and obscure source material, Besson is betting the house on the success of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
Besson’s studio EuropaCorp posted record losses of $135 million during the last financial year, after a string of US-distributed box office flops including “9 Lives,” “Shut In,” “Miss Sloane” and “The Circle.”
The company is looking to establish “Valerian,” starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, as a blockbuster franchise and desperately needs it to be an undisputed hit to justify a sequel.
Variety magazine estimates that when marketing and other costs are figured in, “Valerian” will have to recoup some $400 million worldwide to make it into the black.
Mixed early reviews do not augur particularly well for the numerous investors in the project, financed entirely outside the “Big Six” Hollywood studio system.
It has an average score of 46 out of 100 with online reviews collator Metacritic, and has been dismissed by Entertainment Weekly as an “epic mess.”
The most excoriating criticism came from influential trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, which described it as “unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible and, before long, an excellent sedative.”
Besson, now 58, has dreamed of making the picture since happening upon the comic strip “Valerian and Laureline,” the adventures of two intergalactic “special ops” agents, when he was living in the countryside outside Paris at the age of 10.
“That was probably my only escape door to be free, to imagine, to dream. I remember that clearly,” Besson told AFP, describing how he was immediately smitten with Laureline.
“She was free, she was kicking ass, killing aliens. The first image of this woman was very strong and I was in love right away with her. She was so sexy,” he said.
The young Besson devoured all 21 volumes of the serial written by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mezieres.
He went on to make a string of classics including “Subway” (1985), “The Big Blue” (1988), “Nikita” (1990), “Leon: The Professional” (1994) and “The Fifth Element” (1997).
All the while Valerian and Laureline were at the back of his mind but Besson knew that special effects were not up to reproducing his vision of their cinematic universe, so he bided his time.
It wasn’t until James Cameron invited Besson to the set of his 2009 space epic “Avatar” that the director decided the technology was at last up to scratch.
“I saw ‘Avatar’ and I came back home and I put my script in the garbage and started again. Because ‘Avatar’ just pushes all the limits and it was just amazing, and I was not at that level,” Besson said at a recent press event in Beverly Hills.
Set in the 28th century, “Valerian “ centers on a dark force threatening Alpha, a vast space-station which is home to species from across the universe, and the efforts of Valerian and Laureline to save it.
The two leads are only just becoming established as big names, with 31-year-old DeHaan getting his break in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014) and model-turned-actress Delevingne, 24, winning her first big starring roles in “Paper Towns” (2015) and “Suicide Squad” (2016).
But they are supported by a veteran backing cast including Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, John Goodman and Rutger Hauer, as well as jazz legend Herbie Hancock.
There are walk-on parts for French directors Louis Letterier, Benoit Jacquot and Olivier Megaton, while pop superstar Rihanna makes a memorable if bizarre cameo as Bubble, a shape-shifting exotic dancer who can quote Shakespeare and Moliere.
Filmed on seven soundstages at Cite du Cinema, Besson’s 65-acre (26-hectare) film complex in the suburbs of Paris, the six-month shoot wrapped in June last year, although the artistic planning started way back in 2010.
Huge physical sets as well as multiple spaceships, control rooms and a flying bus were enhanced by 2,700 special effects shots — compared with just 188 in “The Fifth Element” — to bring Besson’s vision to life.
There are neon-colored alien worlds, space battles, flying car chases, shoot-outs with extraterrestrial underworld criminals and plenty of narrow escapes from numerous spectacular creatures, all rendered in vibrant 3D.
“I watched Luc every day on set having the time of his life making the film he’s wanted to make his entire life,” said DeHaan.
“He would give me the biggest hug every day I stepped on the set.”