Valerian Will Bring Out Your Inner Geek



‘Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Worlds’. It’s just so…French, that title, like ‘Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain’, which everyone ended up calling ‘Amelie’ before a backlash began against its perceived tweeness. The film was attacked by critic Serge Kaganski for offering a picturesque vision of bygone Paris with few ethnic minorities, although the director pointed out that one of the main characters, Jamel Debbouze, was very clearly of ethnic origin.  The critics had failed to notice that ‘Amelie’ was a bizarre psycho-comedy which had scenes involving vibrators, mass orgasms and many autistic lists.

But French humour doesn’t travel, at least to Main Street USA, because ‘The Fifth Element’ ran into the same problem. First it was hysterically attacked in Hollywood by those fearing that Europe might steal their jobs, then it was dismissed for mixing comedy with SF because, you know, too complicated.

And so, Luc Besson’s long-gestating epic version of his favourite childhood bande dessinée is probably fated to die a death (initially, at least) in many parts of the world which think that ‘Transformers 5’ is an acceptable or remotely interesting way to pass the time while actually longing for the relief that death might bring.


‘Valerian’ would have been just another summer blockbuster in Hollywood, but it’s the most expensive European film ever made. The original artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, connects both ‘The Fifth Element’ and this, and the comparisons don’t end there. ‘Fifth’ was also the most expensive European film of its time and was critically mauled, but it went on to immense long-tail success and become the touchstone graphic-novel-to-cult-movie. ‘Valerian’ is very much cut from the same mould, but there are crucial differences.

Whereas ‘Fifth’ had dependable and identifiable Bruce Willis as a 23rd century cabbie, ‘Valerian’ is miscast, saddled with gruff Dane DeHaan, the faintly unlikeable and over-intense man-boy (despite actually being 31) who starred in the equally polarising ‘A Cure For Wellness’. DeHaan’s romantic conversations with femme lead, model Cara Delevingne are mawkish and as stilted as, well, the dialogue in most comics. Delevingne is at least smart, stunning, tough and dry-witted, but their romance lacks resonance, and in a post-‘Avatar’ world the surrounding barrage of visuals isn’t quite as faceplantingly awesome as it might once have been.

And yet.

‘Valerian’ is probably as close as we’ll ever get to European graphic novels springing fully to life, from its goose-pimple fast-forward opening to its explosive close. Even the critics who hated it admit that the visuals are dazzling, and thanks to the strange mix of dazzling colour, humour and energy, it will probably age as well as the twenty year old ‘Fifth’.


And I keep coming back to those electrifying set pieces; the opening battle in a market that only exists in a different dimension, the multiple-wall obstacle course chase, Rihanna’s invisible pole-dancing jellyfish, the three odd creatures who constitute one mind, and a dozen other wild moments. Where ‘Fifth’ hinged the fate of the universe on someone trying to light a match, here we get a more traditional bomb countdown with soldiers, aliens and battles set to Alexandre Desplat’s superb score.

All of which surgically removes ‘Valerian’ from the mainstream, which likes its robots evil, its heroes dim and its battles simplistic. Personally, I don’t care whether the public catches up with it in time; I can’t wait to see it again, on a massive screen in 3D, so that all the details can be studied (like the tiny metal user-warning plates on the sides of the space helmets).

So – it’s the most expensive geek film ever made, it will improve with age, it has the joy of being as funny as ‘Fifth’, and thank the gods someone caters to us geeks instead of shovelling out another toy franchise.

8 comments on “Valerian Will Bring Out Your Inner Geek”

  1. Bill says:

    I don’t understand. You say “Amelie” did not travel to Main Street USA; however, “Amelie” is, to date, the highest-grossing French-language film released in the United States. We adored it. And the trope of a little garden gnome was adopted by some commercial entity or other to advertise something or other, travel, I suppose; the little gnome still shows up on Yankee TV so many years later.

    I loved the scene where Amelie is found out trying to enter an apartment illegally, and she she tries to cover herself by explaining she wants the resident to sign a petition to canonize Lady Diana! We all laughed so hard at that!

    Really, canonize Lady Diana.

  2. admin says:

    I agree, Bill, but as in the UK it was still released under an arthouse banner and on its release was successful only as an arthouse film. The point I was trying to make was that its reputation grew in the long run – as Valerian’s will.

  3. Ken Mann says:

    Is there a critical term for the effect of seeing in front of you something that you only used to see inside your head? It must be part of the pleasure of being a film director, and something the audience occasionally experiences in adaptations.

  4. admin says:

    It’s covered by the term ‘fan service’, and really mans ‘listening to the audience’s dreams’.

  5. Bill says:

    Thank you, Chris, for pointing that out. I very often miss the point; the result, I suppose, of living in a bubble. A pleasant bubble, of course. I’ll try to catch “Valerian”!

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    The SF/ Fantasy / Comic Book crossover onto the big screen often suffers from duff press, and not just the European stuff.
    Blade Runner was badly reviewed on release, as was Flash Gordon (with Queen, Brian Blessed, Topol, Ornella Muti and Max von Sydow- where could it go wrong?). The splendidly atmospheric Shadow with Alec Baldwin was mauled or ignored, nobody seemed to know what to do with Sky Captain but I thought it might have ushered in a whole bunch of interesting retro SF stuff. John Carter – which failed to use the words ‘Of Mars’ got one of the biggest thrashings of all time but I think it stands up as a great action Science – Fantasy movie; I’d have looked forward to a follow up.

    Yet Diva and Leon were great Euro or Euro influenced movies that made a big impact.

    Go back a bit and watch Luc Godard’s Alphaville – an amazing movie at all levels.

    You wonder whether a lot is based on toy and game tie-ins and merchandising. You just hope that some stuff eventually becomes a cult.

    The critics seem to be people who don’t get close to understanding a genre, but maybe its an age gap thing; older directors do characters they loved as a child but forget that the audience is 30 years younger and hasn’t a clue why they should love a character they know little about – The Phantom and The Spirit are cases in point.

    I love Band Desinee and love European cinema. Any chance of a big screen Rocco Vargas with art direction by Daniel Torres?

  7. Ford says:

    What Besson’s “Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec”? Silly, but great fun!

  8. John Howard says:

    So glad to hear it is as good as, if not better, than “Fifth Element” which seemed to appeal to all ages. I.E: the whole family still think its a great film.
    Now, if we are talking “geek” my breath is bated and am just having to wait, and wait, and wait for Blade Runner 2049.

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