Valerian and the City of Red Tape

Valerian expresses its ideas through the characters' adventures – and the audience experiences it with them.

Today on Out of Frame, I'm going to talk about Luc Besson's new $200 million blockbuster, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, or (more accurately), the fantastic and highly influential French graphic novel series it's based on.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Besson, he's had an immensely successful career that started with creating an entirely new genre of filmmaking in the 1980s called "Cinema Du Look" with films like Nikita, Subway, and Le Grand Bleu. Then he saw American critical acclaim with Leon the Professional, and eventually enormous commercial success in the sci-fi genre with The Fifth Element – which actually featured production design by Valerian and Laureline artist Jean-Claude Mézières.

Valerian is creative, humorous, inventive, and bold, but its best aspect is its ideas.Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a project that Luc Besson has reportedly been trying to make for decades. And he's hardly the only filmmaker to be influenced by Valerian and Laureline.

Even though the comics by Pierre Christin are largely unknown to American audiences today, if you know where to look, it's hard not to spot their massive impact on the history of science fiction cinema going all the way back to classics like Star Wars and Barbarella.

But what I like most about Valerian isn't the creativity and humor of its characters, the originality of its alien worlds, or even its inventive, bold artwork.

Nope. What I really love about Valerian are its ideas.

But before I get to that, we should talk about storytelling for a second.

"What Comes from the Heart, Goes to the Heart"

This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but big ideas about society and philosophy are actually pretty hard to successfully incorporate into creative stories.

In his book Three Uses of the Knife, playwright David Mamet said that the best dramatic stories stick with you, because, as he says, ”…there's something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart."

By contrast, Mamet says that:

What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we're being manipulated. And we resent it.

The point is, stating an idea outright or simply presenting the evidence for a particular viewpoint usually winds up making audiences feel like they're being told what to think or to feel.

And let's be honest... nobody likes that.

As a result, writers pushing a particular message often end up creating preachy stories that are boring, divisive, or just plain irritating to the reader.

Meanwhile – perhaps ironically – stories that are centered around relatable characters usually end up conveying their ideas much more effectively, whether the author has an agenda or not, because the audience organically empathizes with characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler call the tendency for people to reject direct evidence that challenges their pre-existing viewpoints the "backfire effect,” while psychologist Markus Appel's work suggests that people who empathize with characters in a story experience something called "narrative transportation" and become more open to those characters' values and ideas.

Writers with a message often create preachy stories that are boring or divisive. Valerian is none of these things.Another way to think about this is that it's easy to disagree with an abstract or intellectual idea, and it's even easier to dismiss evidence you don't like about the real world. But it's almost impossible to disagree with someone else's experience and in order to enjoy narrative fiction, you have to suspend disbelief… at least for a little while.

All that is to say, for those of us who do make films about big ideas and intellectual concepts, simply presenting "the facts" isn't persuasive.

The only way to make new ideas compelling to most people is through the use of a storytelling technique called allegory, or, a symbolic narrative using concrete characters and situations to represent abstract concepts.

And few genres offer writers a better opportunity to talk about philosophical ideas through allegory than science fiction and fantasy.

Valerian and Laureline is a perfect example of this.

On the surface, it's one of the most wildly inventive and original comics I've ever read. It's set hundreds of years into the future, where humans have survived a nuclear holocaust to eventually learn to bend time and space and our heroes are a pair of fearless agents for Earth's Spatio-Temporal Agency who travel through the universe encountering new civilizations. Valerian is fun, but a bit arrogant, yet genuinely skilled as a space pilot and operative. Laureline is smarter and a bit sarcastic, often bailing Valerian out from situations he can't handle.

They make a great team, and their adventures are exciting and fun to read. But underneath all that is a set of ideas about how society should work.

Living Out Ideas

For example, in Valerian and Laureline and the Empire of a Thousand Planets (the book that it seems like Besson's film is mostly going to be based on), Valerian and Laureline are dispatched to the Planet Syrte, which no Earthling has ever visited.

The planet is described as "the greatest market of the Empire”: a hub of trade and peaceful commerce for merchants from across the galaxy where one can find virtually anything they could want or need. What's more, it's a spaceport that "welcomed ships from all over the solar system. There's no customs, no security… One comes to Syrte the Magnificent unrestrained, and leaves it freely."

And the people of Syrte were all the better for it.

This isn't a dystopian nightmare like you would see in so many other depictions of the future, especially in a world dominated by commerce. Valerian and Laureline mainly depicts commerce and trade as it actually is: the opposite of violence.

Pause for a second to think about how rare that is. Since at least the ‘60s, "Businessman" has been the most reliably predictable villain in pop culture entertainment.

Valerian expresses its ideas through the characters' adventures – and the audience experiences it with them.Eventually, when Valerian and Laureline learn that a religious sect has taken over the government of Syrte – restricting trade and immigration and creating a secretive ruling class that impoverishes the people of the planet – they work with the leader of the Merchant's Guild to overthrow the government and re-establish free trade and commerce throughout the system and even build new trading relationships with Earth.

A lot of Valerian novels have similar themes of peace, trade, and individualism.

In Heroes of the Equinox, Valerian becomes a champion competing for the honor of becoming the genetic progenitor of the next generation of an entire species on a planet called Simlane.

I know, it's a weird concept. But welcome to science fiction.

Anyway, after a rigorous series of physical challenges, the final test requires each of the challengers to describe their ideal vision for the future of the planet.

First, Irmgaal says that he would see Simlane build powerful spaceships to conquer the galaxy. The next challenger, Ortzog, says that he would tear down all symbols of wealth and luxury, and institute a communist central bureaucracy to plan society, redistribute wealth, and rebuild Simlane into an agrarian and industrial world. Blimflim speaks next, advocating a society that renounces technology and industry, and allows nature to reclaim their cities leaving the future generation to live in the wild like their ancestors did.

But, finally, Valerian arrives.

Unlike the other champions, he's caught off guard by the very idea of the question. He says,

Honestly, I don't really have a clear idea. Anyways, it's not up to me to define it. I hope the people will be happy in their own fashion on their planet.

From the Page to the Screen

Throughout the entire series, Valerian and Laureline fight on the side of individual self-determination and the value of a diverse, peaceful, prosperous society. And they do all this inside the context of entertaining and original science-fiction storytelling, which means that all of these ideas about how our world could and should be are felt and seen by audiences instead of being presented as arguments to be dismissed or ignored.

I have no idea if these kinds of ideas will make an appearance in Luc Besson's new film, but I hope so. If his treatment is as smart, vibrant, and fun as the source material, the film should be pretty good.

But hey, if not, you can always go read the books.