Like the space station Alpha which floats at the core of Luc Besson's latest film, Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets isn't particularly radical when you strip it down to its most basic parts. After all, this isn't the first time that audiences this summer have seen wisecracking heroes fight to protect the galaxy from alien threats. However, when Besson combines these disparate elements into one cohesive whole, both Alpha and Valerian itself transform into a dazzling movie that draws inspiration from the most far-flung places, redefining what audiences should expect from blockbuster cinema.
Billed as the most expensive independent-film production ever made, Valerian squeezes every cent from its $180 million budget, transporting audiences across a universe filled with spectacle and eye-popping visuals. Not since Avatar has a film dedicated itself to building a world on this scale — but then again, director Luc Besson isn't your typical filmmaker.
Ever since he first fell in love with Agent Laureline as a boy, Besson has sought to bring the comic-book world of Valerian to life, but it's only now that filmmaking techniques have caught up with his imagination. With that being said, technology alone doesn't make Valerian an artistic triumph. In the summer of a thousand failures, what is it about Valerian that propels it light years beyond the likes of Transformers: The Last Knight and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales?
The Auteur Element
It's rather fitting that one of the last remaining auteurs working on this scale of filmmaking is French, as the very notion of a director leaving his stamp on their movie was originally devised in France. It was critics André Bazin and Roger Leenhardt who first argued that directors are the 'authors' of their own movies. For years, filmmakers as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino have been labelled in this vein, but analysts worry that studio interference is gradually replacing the auteur's signature with boardroom planning that minimizes creativity in a bid to maximize profits.
Fortunately, Luc Besson has continued to evade such machinations by utilizing indie-style practices to fund his movie, side-stepping any need to involve Hollywood studios for either production or distribution purposes. As a result, Besson's unique authorial stamp continues to develop with each new release, connecting his unusually diverse filmography with specific themes and motifs that are all too often submerged by studio interference.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Agent Laureline
Just as he did in groundbreaking movies such as Subway, The Fifth Element and Léon: The Professional, Besson continues to explore the role of outcasts through strong female characters in his latest film, literally leading us under the surface of regular society to take a glimpse at the horrors that lie below. In the case of Valerian, Agent Laureline journeys through the forbidden areas located at the heart of Alpha to rescue her colleague from death, linking the film thematically with much of Besson's previous work.
While Valerian does include typical tropes of the sci-fi genre too, including bickering agents, grotesque aliens and the search for a MacGuffin that holds untold power, Besson filters these cliches through his unique lens, turning them upside down and inside out with gleeful abandon.
Besson: The Professional, or The Importance of Doing Your Homework
Few directors would create their own personal bible in preparation for a movie, but that's exactly what Besson did for Valerian, describing numerous alien races over the course of 600 pages. As if that wasn't enough, Besson also wrote out the entire 500 year history of the Alpha Space station in order to enhance the film's central performances.
During an interview with SlashFilm, Besson revealed that:
"When Cara and Dane arrived, I told their agent, “They need to know all this.” I gave them the 600 pages. I said, “You have to learn everything. You’re a cop. You need to know the names.” I don’t want him, when he meets an alien to go, “Whoa” like this. I want him to know if this guy is peaceful. What is the history of the human race? Maybe we were fighting before, but now we’re friends."
Usually, Hollywood films developed at this scale are green-lit rather late in the day, imposing time restrictions on the creative process of everyone involved in order to meet the confirmed release date. However, in this same interview, Besson explains how he avoided this, spending two years on the design of each alien species with help from a surprising source:
"I sent 2000 letters to 2000 schools around the world and said, I’m gonna do a sci-fi film. If you want to participate, send me a spaceship, a world and an alien... We picked up 15... Then I worked with five artists for a year... And I said, here’s the description with words of the alien I want. Come back with something. So the guys had no limit of time or budget or just creatively for the first six or seven months. They were just totally open."
Much of Besson's enviable successful can be attributed to his desire for collaboration, even opening up his work to school children when necessary!
The Big Blue Market
Nowadays, it seems as though there are as many superhero movies in development as there are stars in the sky, so how can filmmakers hope to compete without emulating action sequences that we've already seen? It certainly helps that Besson works outside of the traditional Hollywood system, enabling him to bring a uniquely European sensibility to his work. In reality though, it's the longer development process that enables Besson to take his time and think outside of the box, constructing delirious sequences that are unrivalled in their kinetic energy onscreen.
From the scene where Valerian fights from within a shape-shifting alien to the moment when he blasts through Alpha using armor that even Iron Man would be jealous of, Besson's latest movie is like nothing we've seen since... well, since he directed The Fifth Element in 1995.
However, even these scenes pale in comparison to the staggering originality of the Big Market sequence where our heroes first leap into action. During this mission, Valerian and Laureline journey through a multidimensional shopping mall that can only be accessed using virtual reality gloves and glasses. Cue a series of deranged yet glorious shoot-outs where only Valerian's hand can be seen shooting alien targets out of a floating box.
Still haven't quite wrapped your head around this? You're not alone, as even the team working on Valerian struggled to understand Besson's vision at first. To help his team visualise the Big Market sequence, Luc enlisted students from his directing school in Paris to act out an entire 18 minute demo scene, which fortunately paid off.
Forget boardrooms or a bunch of guys sitting around computers. Luc Besson grasps at the most abstract of concepts and pulls them down to earth — or any other planet he can conceive — through a direct, hands-on approach that Hollywood could learn a thing or two from these days.
Besson And The Invisibles
It's hard not to watch the likes of Transformers and wonder sometimes if anything filmed on-screen was ever remotely real, including the actors themselves. To combat this, Besson sought to combine practical and CGI effects whenever possible for Valerian, despite the film's fantastical nature and countless alien races.
As Besson said during an interview with SlashFilm, "There is nothing better than a human movement," which is why he and his special effects team ditched a 100% CGI approach, instead starting with something concrete and real before building up their phantasmic world.
Speaking to Engadget about the 2,734 special effects shots used in Valerian, Besson explained how different scenes require different approaches:
"My first question with my team is, "What is the best way of doing this?" It's not automatically CGI or props... The Doghan Daguis [alien species] are all CG... But I have real actors playing them all the time, so there's lots of rehearsal with them so we can get the rhythm of the lines... we built three Doghan Daguis figures and have them as a model... They can't move, but every time we finished a shot, we put the three models in, and suddenly you have exactly the right light on them. You see exactly how the skin is reacting, you see the reflections on the eyes... so the people from WETA know exactly how the light will react on them later."
Ever since James Cameron's Avatar first opened up a whole new world of possibilities in filmmaking, few have capitalized on this potential like Besson has. Sure, Valerian may have its flaws, including some wooden dialogue and a rather protracted ending, but the acclaimed director's latest movie must be admired for its bravado, redefining what cinema is capable of — and this is only the beginning.
Given that The Fifth Element featured 188 FX shots compared to Valerian's 2,734, who knows what brave new worlds Agent Valerian and Laureline could explore next if Besson's scripts for Valerian 2 and 3 ever come to light? As Besson himself told Deadline, "Imagination is the only limit."
What's your favorite moment in Valerian? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!