A new sci-fi epic of fantastic planets, indescribable aliens, and thrilling adventure is coming to the U.S. this month—and there's not a lightsaber in sight. Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets premieres July 21, and while this little piece of French fiction feels obscure, it's made a giant impact on science fiction for decades.
Based on the 1960s Valérian and Laureline, this sci-fi epic follows the adventures of a dimwitted time cop and his medieval maiden-turned-badass partner Laureline as they pursue missions throughout space and time — whether in a post-apocalyptic NYC, a distant space station, or inside a planet.
Like the limitless imagination of other sci-fi greats, Valérian is full of giant space stations, bizarre planets, and creature design that looks anything but human. There's a reason you might think it sounds a lot like Star Wars, but make no mistake—Valérian was here first.
Making a Legend
Valérian Creators Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières had known each other since childhood in suburban Paris, and both had a growing interest in comics and art alongside classmate, Jean Giraud, also known as Moebius—one of the most famous French comic artists of all time.
Christin and Mézières began to collaborate on a professional level in the mid-1960s, where they worked on western comics. Giraud published his famous Blueberry series in a magazine called Pilote in 1963. Although Christin and Mézières initially had a similar interest in western comics, by the mid-1960s the creative duo were furtively working on a science fiction comic. At the time, the genre was something of a rarity in the Franco-Belgian comics scene. A few sci-fi tales like the erotica comic Barbarella existed, but mainstream sci-fi comics remained elusive.
"The reason for my choosing science fiction then was clear: there wasn't any, and the genre was at its literary peak in the U.S. and the U.K.," Christin said in an in 2006. "All the big names were starting to appear. We were discovering the old authors and also the modern ones...very contemporary, interesting, and modern. I knew instinctively how to work in that type of science fiction."
By 1967, Christin and Mézières published the original Valérian strips in Pilote. In it, Valérian works as a space-time enforcement officer when he travels back to medieval times and meets a fair maiden—who also happens to be much smarter than him. Eventually, she's brought to his 28th-century present, and the two become traveling companions through space and time.
And while Hollywood is finally discovering narrative power of strong female heroines, like Star Wars' Rey or DC Comics' Diana Prince, Laureline has been an ass-kicking action heroine from the get-go.
"You see, at the time most female characters in comics were either utterly of the dumb type except Barbarella, but she made use of her bodily charms somewhat," Christin told . "And I think that Laureline was one of the first interesting and rounded-out females."
Today French science fiction and fantasy comics exist as a cult phenomenon in the U.S. The magazine Heavy Metal is a spin-off of 1974's adult-oriented Sci-Fi/fantasy mag Metal Hurlant, and that's considered one of the better known examples. Most French comics familiar to average U.S. readers are kid-centric stuff like Tintin and Asterix.
Of course, Hollywood's tried putting French comics on the big screen before, like 1968's Barbarella, 1980's Heavy Metal, and the 1973 cult classic Fantastic Planet, while not a direct comic adaptation, it featured many of the same surrealistic elements common in the genre. Even more obscure films attempted the feat, and in 2007, an Valérian anime series ofarrived after more than 25 years in development.
But maybe the most well-known homage came from the Valérian strip, Empire of a Thousand Planets. The original strips ran in 1969 and 1970 with a collected volume coming out in 1971. In it, the duo travel in their crescent shaped starship XB982 to a desert planet ruled by a secretive society. Along the way, Valérian is encased in a resin by the mysterious antagonists. The villains reveal scarred and burned faces underneath their dark warlord masks.
If that sounds familiar, it should—similar threads can be found in a little-known space opera called Star Wars.
"It's obvious I'm dazzled, jealous...and furious, because I drew the same universes for 15 years," Mézières in the pages of Pilote. "Lucas is inspired by all the existing comics ... but I'm sure he looked at my books."
Much of Star Wars' art concepts belong to Ralph McQuarrie, and liberal ways he played with Moebius' art. Mézières fired back by drawing a 1983 scene in a dark cantina where Han and Leia meet Valérian and Laureline, with the latter stating that they've been "coming here for a long time."
And so has director Luc Besson.
One of Besson's most famous works (at least among sci-fi disciples) was 1998's The Fifth Element. Both Moebius and Mézières worked on the concept art, so there are plenty of visual callbacks to Valérian and Moebius /Alejandro Jodorowsky's comic The Incal. So much so that Jodorowsky and Moebius sued Besson after the release of the film, but the case was eventually dismissed.
The Fifth Element's visuals trade off between some of the giant spectacle worlds of Mézières' art and Moebius' spectacular interiors and surrealistic characters. The film became a perfect synthesis of styles, the innocent, endlessly creative cartoon style of Mézières and the surrealistic sweeping visuals of Moebius.
But where The Fifth Element was a new creation drawn from the wellspring of inspiration that is French sci-fi, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will be the first proper big screen adaptation ever attempted.
Valérian Comes to America
Despite having a similar name to Empire of a Thousand Planets, Besson's new film is actually adapted from 1975's Ambassador of the Shadows. Beginning in a war-torn region of space, Besson's film explores an assemblage of species taking root on a space station and creating a city called Alpha (Point Central in the comics).
There's peace among the various colorful and dissimilar species (many of whom are in the film). The ambassador, who looks like Peter "Grand Moff Tarkin" Cushing, calls the agents into his office upon their arrival. Earth is about to take the lead of the council, and the ambassador needs Valérian and Laureline's protection. Soon, as things often do with action-paced fiction, the situation escalates bringing the city on the brink of violent conflict.
Despite the name of the movie, most of the storyline belongs to Laureline, with Valérian taking a backseat. Whether that's true with this film remains to be seen, but it seems that all roads have been leading toward this summer blockbuster. As Besson says in , The Fifth Element was only the beginning.
"Avatar arrived—the good news was that, technically, I could see that we can do everything now," Besson said. "The film proved that imagination is the only limit."
If the film hits with American audiences (and ), the race could be on to bring the world of French comic books to the big screen, shaking the Franco-Belgian visage of Tintin and Asterix. Maybe even Jodorowsky's The Incal could finally get an adaptation, a fitting tribute to late Moebius.
But if nothing else, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like one hell of a ride.