Valerian as Espionage
It is not by accident that we chose this poster as an illustration. Unlike much of the publicity for the Besson film, it conveys a richness of character and diversity that better corresponds to the story than the images that focus only on the characters of Valerian and Laureline in an uncharacteristically threatening pose.
Like Besson's earlier sci fi classic, The Fifth Element, this movie has generated heated controversy between its proponents and a large body of detractors who have, we feel, misunderstood and hence misjudged the film as an art work. The primary reason for this split is probably because Valerian demands the viewer's attention to a degree that is uncommon today. With most action films, a spectator can run for a pee-pee break or stand in the popcorn line for a few minutes without missing too much, since a few explosions more or less will not vary the plot line, nor will omitting several iterations of "Go! Go! Now!" change the impressions of a character. Not so for Valerian. The action is non-stop, but the events are also tightly interwoven. This is because it is more than a science fiction action film. It is also, fundamentally, a spy film.
We are probably more sensitive to this spy designation because our own second novel in the Forlani Sage, Spy Station, is also centered on espionage. Espionage always demands mystery more than direct confrontation. Another word for spy is secret agent, so espionage presumes secrecy. Valerian and Laureline are not truly military personnel, but intelligence operatives. Their primary mission is to retrieve a stolen generator organism. To perform it, they must employ disguise, deception, and cunning, rather than just blasting their way into an enemy base and destroying it. Of course, as with any espionage, there is always collateral damage. But the point is to minimize direct confrontation so as to complete the mission: slip in undetected, snatch the object, escape as intact as possible.
Of course, there are lots of fancy accessories. Just as James Bond has his specially equipped spy cars and his Walther PPK, Valerian and Laureline have morphing body armor and impressive sidearms. Like those subject to JamesBondage, sci fi fans sometimes put undue emphasis on these technical gadgets to the detriment of story line and character (a classic example that pokes fun at fan obsessions is the wonderful parody Galaxy Quest). However, the discerning spectator needs to avoid excessive concentration on details in order to keep the overall operation in focus -- one needs to see the forest as well as the trees. It is essential to "follow the money," or in this case, the predicament of the Pearls and their last surviving pet generator beast. This is what all the critics and viewers who complain that Valerian is "hard to follow" have failed to do.
Another complication in this confusion is that this film departs from the usual trends of military sci fi, since it is the military that has caused the problem and that ultimately poses the greatest threat to the survival of The City of a Thousand Planets, Space Station Alpha. It is important to remember that the Pearls' home world is ravaged as collateral damage in a military engagement that they have no part in. It is the human space rangers who are responsible for the very radiation that threatens Alpha, since they turned the Pearls into galactic refugees. For their part, the Pearls do not envision any threat to the other species on the station and take great pains to "slime" their opponents rather than killing them when they have the chance. The danger lies in the military chain of command (the backbone of much military sci fi), while salvation eventually requires the space rangers to essentially mutiny in support of "humanitarian" ends (how strange that phrase sounds in the face of an interplanetary, interspecies reality that we all may have to face sooner than we imagine). The Space Cadets in the audience will always have trouble accepting a conflict where the military is at fault, just as war buffs cannot help finding issues with Platoon. All the more so when the smarter of the spy pair is -- unforgivably for some -- a woman.
For anyone who has made their way through one of John le Carre's contorted spy tales, Valerian is not truly that hard to follow. In many ways, it can be compared to one of the cinematic adaptations of Fleming's Bond stories, though in this case the spies have to navigate the interdimensional Big Market instead of the canals of Venice, deal with slinky females who can shape shift, and avoid an enforcer who looks like Ghostbusters' Zool and tears apart space ships instead of just throwing an iron hat. It is a travelogue where the viewer is zipped through space and time as well as mere geography. In fact, this is cleverly underlined by Besson in the Big Market sequence when a couple of kitsch-collecting American tourists provide a humorous homage to Sheriff J. W. Pepper on vacation in The Man With the Golden Gun. It can be said that Valerian is, in typically French fashion, very intertextual as well as interdimensional. Very nouveau roman!
In some ways, Valerian and Laureline are unlike Bond in that they are super-conscious of their role as secret agents and the human price they pay to do their jobs. They are closer to the realm of George Smiley. Their courageous friend Bubbles, done to surprising perfection by Rihanna, belongs more with the endearing figures in Smiley's People than the tinsel superficiality of the Bond Girls. Laureline, who is, we must remember, an "old-fashioned girl" from the Middle Ages in her comic strip genesis, forces Valerian to renounce his philandering ways as a tombeur de filles to an extent that Bond, even in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Casino Royale (sic), never has to endure. How appropriate, since Laureline is never a fille but a fully conscious and unrepentant woman.
The espionage plot in Valerian unfolds in stages, as most spy intrigues must. On the surface, things begin with what appears to be a simple caper, recovering an object of dubious legitimacy. Casino Royale begins as an attempt to recover money embezzled by a labor official, Dr. No with the disappearance of a bird watcher, Goldfinger with a vacationer cheating at gin rummy. There is always more going on than is apparent, a seemingly sinister organization at work, many levels of things being covered up. There are obligatory escape sequences that have to introduce surprise after surprise, preferably contrasting extremely bizarre elements with others that are mundane and ironically comical. There is spycraft and the inevitable awkwardness of dealing with superiors who always demand more than is reasonable and reveal less than is necessary. In Valerian there is even the arch-enemy, the mole in the system who has a personal agenda that is counter to the general welfare.
We will return to Valerian in a future post to deal with some further issues of characterization. We hope that this discussion of the "spy side" of the movie will cause people to return and review it with a fresh perspective. Clearly, it is a film that, like The Fifth Element is destined not just for cult popularity, but ultimately for a classic status.