The most important words in the new trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are not “from the legendary director of The Professional, The Fifth Element, Lucy.” They’re certainly not the names of the two leads or the exposition of their mission, even though all that does the work of establishing why people might want to see this movie (hint: Luc Besson!)—and at least an inkling that this candy-colored kaleidoscope will also have a plot.
No, the most important words are “welcome to.” Because forget Besson’s pedigree, or all that science fictobabble—what matters is that you get some idea of what the hell is going on in Besson’s new universe. The next decade of moviemaking might be riding on it.
Valerian has a little bit of a problem. Two, actually. The first is that despite the trailer’s insistence that the movie is “based on the groundbreaking graphic novel that inspired a generation,” odds are you’ve never heard of the Valerian and Laureline series of French bandes dessinées. In other words, an epic, mega-budget sci-fi movie that’s based on a not-widely-recognizable intellectual property. John Carter much?
Original-IP sci-fi is suffering, with rare Interstellar-shaped exceptions. Besson gets to make them because of his reputation, and occasionally some slick international film financing. And that’s great! If you liked the eight-figures-worth of visual insanity that was Lucy, well, it turns out that nine figures delivers you exponentially more: bioluminescent aliens, flying saucers, giant monsters, battle scenes, ray guns, and a magical color-change Rihanna. Sure. Yes. I’m in.
But don’t forget the second problem. Those Valerian and Laureline comics? The ones that Besson grew up reading, and now wants to spin into a franchise of dimension-hopping space-faring chrome-clad cloak and daggering? Well, you might not have heard of them, but they influenced a lot of stuff that you have heard of. Like, a lot a lot. So now, audiences see this trailer, this thing that is actually the progenitor of some iconic strains of cinema sci-fi, and they think eh, looks kinda derivative. It’s like seeing Reservoir Dogs after you’ve seen Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Well, not quite, but you get it. Point is, if people think they’ve seen it before, maybe that makes them less likely to see it again.
Between now and its July release, Valerian has its work cut out for it.
So between now and its July release, Valerian has its work cut out for it. It needs to do more than just reel in an old Bessoníste like me—and in fact has to pull in a way bigger audience than Besson’s other work. That starts and ends with laying a foundation. Alien montages and Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne swashbuckling around the galaxy won’t do it. I mean, a little bit, but not all of it. Because while Besson might feel like he’s coming home and meeting old friends, most audiences won’t. They’re going to have to want something new from a brilliant, idiosyncratic creator. You might see hints of Avatar and of Star Wars in the trailer, but this new world is all Besson’s. Welcome to it.
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