I was wrong to think that the guy and the girl always had equal billing in the title of the original comic series: Valérian et Laureline was for most of its history Valérian, agent spatio-temporel. But I still reckon the only reason they called the film Valerian (and the City of a Thousand Planets), despite its two protagonists having fastidiously equal roles, was fear that action-adventure American men would assume that something called Valerian and Laureline must be some kind of romance they wouldn’t want to see.
There was a bit of a romantic subplot and the less said about that, the better, except that I really wish Luc Besson had spent a few euros from his US$200 million budget to let a good scriptdoctor sort out that thread of the story. Aside from those embarrassing scenes, the film is magnificent. It is true to the zany humour of Christin and Mézières’ bandes dessinées – something else that might wrongfoot action-adventure fans – and it’s more than true to the comics’ visual inventiveness, hugely influential as they have been on SF visual culture; not least on Star Wars – as Besson’s film repeatedly reminds us. The sheer abundance of imaginative visual complexity seems to me an affirmation of the wonderfulness of diversity, complexity, intricacy – of cultures, creatures, habitats, places – in the real world as much as in fantasy.
I’m aware that much of the appeal of that, as in John Carter and Avatar, depends on the kind of exoticising of other cultures which goes back to Orientalist painting and literature and which the critics remind us went hand in hoof with European imperialism. Worse yet, maybe, when it comes to the paradise planet Mül and its scantily clothed natives who live in harmony with their environment and never forget to ‘give something back to nature in return for all that she gives us’, who might be seen as romanticising or essentialising the indigenous peoples – in Africa, Polynesia? – who inspired them. But what’s the alternative? Would it really be more okay to depict indigenous peoples as having degraded the ecosystems they inhabit? Or as lacking adequate medical knowledge, say?
The people of Mül have the best of both worlds; they choose to live close to nature but they have sophisticated technological capability when they need it. Future primitive. Something to aspire to, I’d say. Friends I saw Valerian with came out saying they wished they could live on Mül. Why shouldn’t they feel that? Isn’t it because of such a longing for earthly paradise that people go in their millions on beach holidays, hoping to catch at least a glimmer of it? I was lucky enough to live for a year between the mountains and the sea in a not too developed part of Greece, and it was the year of my life when I have felt most intensely happy.
The natives of Mül lost their planet as a result of Earthmen’s destructiveness. Their longing for the paradise that was their birthright becomes a mission to remake it. Light-hearted though the film may be, the systematic determination with which they pursue that task, together with the scale of Besson’s effort to bring to life such complex imagined worlds, made me wonder what could be achieved in our own world if we truly put our mind to it. The turnover last year of the RSPB, one of the world’s biggest conservation charities, was slightly less than the cost of making Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Organisations like the RSPB do fantastic work, have rewilded plots of land and saved species from extinction, but of course it’s never enough, not when set against the scale of ecological destruction wrought by modern civilisation. I’m not saying – I don’t want to say – we shouldn’t spend millions on film fantasies like Valerian, but if we can muster the cost and the effort to create such astonishing dreamworlds, do we not have it in our power to make, restore, sustain beautiful places on our own planet too?