Unimaginative Imagination: Besson’s Valerian and its image of tomorrow
In a classic essay, Samuel R. Delany wrote that “without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped in blind history” and in other places, he offers up science fiction as a genre with a unique language – not just the grammar of story, but the language and structure itself. Pierre Christin, author and co-creator of the French comic series Valérian et Laureline, suggested something similar when he said of his own creation that science fiction is a great tool to “overheat” the real. It’s too bad that Luc Besson, when he made a movie out of Christin’s creation, decided not to challenge the real.
The long-running science fiction comic Valérian et Laureline, created by Christin and the artist Jean-Claude Mézières often resembles the popular TV show Dr. Who in the way it deals with time and space, offering a broader view on the possibilities of the present than realist, or as Delany calls it: “mundane,” fiction could. It is not subtle, but then the genre of science fiction graphic art is not particularly given to subtlety. Often, its visual inventiveness appears to open paths to meaning that the sometimes disappointingly bland dialogue does not. Christin’s strength is not the dialogue, but the creation of stories and scenarios for Mézières to fill with his enormous vision.
Similarly, Luc Besson’s strengths as a screenwriter have never been dialogue, and that’s more true today than it has ever been. But dialogue is not the main weakness of his new science fiction movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – it’s the characters and structure. Visually, Besson’s movie is stunning, and in a way, he’s come full circle since The Fifth Element, a movie where Jean-Claude Mézières had direct visual input. Now, he went straight to the source material. And his visual storytelling is as strong as ever. The way Besson, in the initial adventure that opens the movie, deals with perception, dimensions and reality reminded me of the fiction of Miéville, for example. He has always had a knack for representing the physical world with a strong and recognizable visual grammar that does not shy away from sinking below the surface of objects, bodies and realities. Delany, in praising science fiction, speaks of the genre’s “literalization of language,” and, in bravura fashion, that’s something Besson pulls off with great aplomb in his SF movies, in particular in Valerian.
Visually, Valerian is such a success because it combines Mézières’s images with Besson’s own fertile imagination and his facility with the grammar of a certain kind of movie. Inexplicably, Besson does not attempt to do the same with the story of the movie. Many of the movie’s scenes and alien races are sourced from the 1975 volume L’Ambassadeur des Ombres (the market in the first act is taken from the earlier book L’Émpire des Milles Planètes, but very loosely–the majority of its effects and ideas in the movie are Besson’s own invention), but apart from three little greedy spies who sell information for profit, most races and characters are used in almost the exact opposite way from the comic. Instead of using his imagination to enhance, enlarge, expand the vision of the original text, Luc Besson allows his own limitations regarding race, gender, and culture to limit the scope of his movie. The extent of these limitations makes for an unhappy viewing experience, and one wishes the movie was without sound so we could follow the images without following the story in detail. It’s not that the original text was without its issues – like many texts of its time, it reproduces some difficult issues in problematic detail. And somehow, it is this aspect in which Besson enlarges and expands the original text. Suggestions about race and gender are amplified in Besson’s movie which adds many additional problematic details.
The basic plot of the movie, if paraphrased, does not overlap greatly as a whole with the comic book, but individual elements are repeated: here as there human aggression is the underlying problem, and here as there, that problem is revealed in the last or penultimate act of the story. Here as there, aliens barge in on a conference and abduct the most powerful man in the room; in the movie that’s the Commander, played by Clive Owen, and in the comic book it’s the human ambassador. In both texts, one of the two pilots Valerian and Laureline gets lost midway through the story, and has to be rescued with the help of the three duck-bat aliens, a squid that creates visions if you wear it as a hat, and a shape-shifting alien, who helps the protagonist to pass as an ugly, ungainly, vaguely humanoid alien. In both movie and book, the plot reaches its climax in an encounter at an unmapped or unclear part of the planet where tall, peaceful humanoid aliens have created a fake beach environment. Laureline also carries, for most of the movie a rat-sized little animal that multiplies that which you feed it by pooping out multiple copies. Most other things are added to the movie, as you’d expect, and most actual additions are well-judged and interesting, including the complete first act which is the best part of the movie by far.
What’s most interesting are the elements that overlap, but have been changed. The biggest change is, in a way, the title of the movie that reflects a change in a basic structure of the movie. The books, a change made to the whole series and all reprints since 2007, are called Valerian et Laureline, the movie, reflecting perhaps Besson’s childhood memories, is called Valerian. And indeed, the boyish protagonist shoulders most of the plot, with Laureline mostly playing a supporting role. Literally on the sideline in the first act of the movie, she gets abducted because, despite the experience she must have, she falls into a trap that Valerian sagely evaded – he even warns her. He then rescues her, with the help of a seductive shape-shifting alien called Bubbles that can look like Rihanna. He also holds the key to the aliens’s salvation, and is the only one of the two who is involved in the final action sequence that saves the day. In the book, his foolhardy attempt to follow the abducted ambassador gets Valerian abducted, as well, and much of the book consists of Laureline trying to find him again. It is Laureline who meets and strikes a deal with a shape-shifting alien, who, incidentally, appears to her as an attractive, half naked man, it is Laureline who has to put a disgusting squid on her head, and finally, it is Laureline that finds Valerian and forces the conclusion.
Many of the other issues with the movies changes follow from this first, fundamental change. Sitting in the movie theatre, I had to think of the debate surrounding HBO’s alternative history show Confederate that will debut any day now. Confederate imagines a timeline where the South has won the Civil War. Many people have been upset about the scenario because it betrays such a poverty of imagination – I mean, imagining a racist South is not such a leap, and already, Confederate-chic is, as they say, a thing, not just among so-called rednecks. The late Mark Fisher has decried, in his most important essay, the fact that we cannot imagine an alternative to Capitalism any more – that we prefer to imagine postapocalyptic scenarios because that’s the best we can do. And similarly, shows like Confederate demonstrate the difficulty to think beyond racism. This brings us back to the “image of tomorrow” Delany called for. In his essay he continues: “Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there.” All shows like Confederate demonstrate are the bad alternatives. Where is the imagination for the good alternatives?
And the same is true for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, just not about race. I mean, yes, it’s also racially dubious: the bug-eyed aliens that kidnap Laureline in the movie are exact copies of the aliens in the comic books, with one major difference. In the comic they may have some visual link to blackness, but they can speak, and have no cultural signifiers. In Besson’s movies, the aliens speak some alien, not understandable language, grin a lot, and have a royal banquet that looks like someone has watched the first scenes of Coming to America one too many times. It’s a caricature of African blackness that uses a multitude of signifiers to make a cultural point. But other than that, racial issues are minor compared to the lack of imagination regarding gender.
In this, a far-away future, people use the same tired lines about what women are like, and men and women behave the same exact way, and are easily identifiable. Laureline falls into a trap because she, flighty woman that she is, reaches out to touch a beautiful butterfly. She begs for the aliens emotionally, while Valerian has to be convinced to change his rational and duty-bound decision. There are other minor details. One involves the shape-shifting alien. When Bubbles tries to seduce Valerian, she takes on the appearance of Rihanna. After Valerian appears to pose a threat, she tries to appease him by appearing as Laureline. He tells her he wants her to look like herself – so she turns into the blue, slightly amorphous creature she really is, and he corrects her: no, not that, I meant the other one. So she turns into Rihanna and eventually sacrifices her life for Valerian. This is a strangely creepy reproduction of pressures most women face in their daily lives, but the movie never shows that it is aware that this is a problem, instead it revels in Rihanna’s good looks. In the comic book, the alien is truly amorphous and its interaction with Laureline also changes Laureline’s appearance, a much more interesting take on physicality and reality than Besson’s – and it contains none of the strange double bind discussion.
Ultimately, the movie’s capitulation to the patriarchal imagination, its inability to imagine beyond that, is most clearly reflected in a small additional change as regards nativism. In the movie, the aliens that kidnap Clive Owen’s commander are refugees, true refugees whose home has been destroyed by a war not of their doing. In today’s political debate, they correspond to the most benign idea about refugees that even the most xenophobic bigot can agree on: their planet has been destroyed, they literally have nowhere else to go. And at the end of the movie, like the nice immigrants that they are, they also leave as soon as they managed to build their spaceship. In the comic book, they are the true natives of the planet that now houses many other races, including humans. And they control business of their planet. There is no need to beg or pray or ask. They take the ambassador, who was planning to launch an attack and take over the whole planet, and simply brainwash him into a pacifist. They are active, and the two men, the Ambassador and Valerian, only regain control over their actions after the aliens/natives are done with them. This inverts the power structures as we are used to them, and serves as a broader reflection of the smaller inversions regarding gender. Much as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets cannot imagine a tomorrow with changed gender roles or even a future where gender is abolished or completely performative (Delany’s own Triton is an example of the latter), where it’s no longer something you are, as today’s regressive ideas are still maintaining as they have for a few hundred years in our culture, they can also not imagine a concept of nativity, power and immigration beyond our current ideas of power and nationality.
For a movie so imaginative, it’s truly sad how unimaginative it really is.