Can the movie "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," premiering Friday, break through the foreign graphic novel barrier?
The comics starring Valerian and his partner, Laureline, were launched in 1967 in a French magazine, Pilote. They were so popular that writer Pierre Christan and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres continued the series for 43 years. "Valerian and Laureline" has sold 2.5 million volumes, and, as of the 2007 census records, 1,852 boys have been named Valerian, and 2,062 girls have been dubbed Laureline. (Christin and Mezieres invented both names.)
That would normally bode well for the movie adaptation, written and directed by Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element"). But there have been plenty of comics from France, Japan, Britain and elsewhere that were huge hits in their own countries but did poorly as live-action movie adaptations in the U.S. Remember, if you can, "Ghost in the Shell," "Judge Dredd," "Oldboy," "Speed Racer," "Tank Girl" and "Tintin." Which may include "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," since it is a French-made movie based on a bandes dessinees (the French term for comics). But there's still hope, because "Valerian" is packed with the sort of the things American audiences love.
The movie features Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two "spatio-temporal agents" in the 28th century who travel space and time to solve problems. The duo accompany Earth's ambassador to Alpha, which looks to be what is called Point Central in the comics. Point Central is a massive space station where hundreds of races live, each in their own habitat attached to a mysterious central hub. "Valerian" comics were almost a blueprint for "Star Wars" and the more successful superhero movies, combining high-voltage action with situational humor and light romance.
So what could go wrong? Well, it might be too familiar to American audiences, who will assume "Valerian" is ripping off "Star Wars," instead of the other way around. Or they might think "Valerian" is aping "The Fifth Element" — not only because the two movies have the same director, but because "Valerian" artist Mezieres was the visual inspiration for both.
A lot of critics were blown away by Besson's imagery, with Nerdist calling it "gorgeous," and Variety reveling in the "cutting-edge and delightfully old-school" world-building. On the other hand, the Hollywood Reporter absolutely savaged the film, calling it "unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible and an excellent sedative." Entertainment Weekly calls it an "epic mess." Even Rotten Tomatoes listed the critical reception a little more than a week before release as "no consensus yet." But the audience reviews listed at the same time were at 75 percent. That will change when the masses begin to chime in, but it must give Besson & Co. a confidence boost. And there's always the international market to consider, which is usually receptive to visual spectacle and forgiving of the kind of storytelling flaws critics are finding in "Valerian."
But however "fresh" the movie is eventually judged to be, it's unlikely to reach "Wonder Woman" or "Spider-Man: Homecoming" numbers. Space and time may be no barrier to Valerian and Laureline, but the U.S. box office looks to remain a pretty tough nut to crack for foreign comic adaptations.