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'Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets' Draws Strong Parallels With Colonial Injustices

If it's simple enough for a comic book fantasy to show audiences, why should a well-educated electorate struggle?

14/08/2017 03:55 SAST | Updated 14/08/2017 06:29 SAST
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is the first Luc Besson film I've seen and it's nowhere near as disappointing as other commentators would have had me expect, though South African reviewers have been considerably more generous to the film than international ones.

For Channel24, Gabi Zietsman, who awarded it four stars, compares it to Besson's cult favourite "The Fifth Element", writing that "it surpasses the scope of that world into something that can only be described as magical".

She goes on to criticise its plot, dialogue and lead actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, but affirms that it "deserves its four-star rating just because of the sheer volume and awe of the universe that Besson presents to us".

Leon van Nierop, in another four-star review for Rapport, writes: "One seldom sees such strange creatures, futuristic cities, weird beings and a totally ordinary hero and heroine. Luc Besson enjoys himself immensely and, visually, it's one of the most overwhelming experiences yet."

I have had more memorable, more wondrous and more singularly original visual experiences in the movies, but Besson's film is indeed a treat. It's understandably often been compared with James Cameron's "Avatar", which also featured an entirely invented CGI-scape of planets, natural wonders, races other than human, and alien animal and plant species, set centuries in the future and far from Earth.

But, where Cameron toured across a single planet (based on factual knowledge of our own solar system) and the specific spiritual contours of a single society inhabiting a part of it, Besson bounds through the universe, from one solar system to another, including intriguing interactions with a parallel dimension and the material threats inherent to a filmmaker's satire of virtual reality experiences.

Besson projects his serious ideas into his imagined future with good humour and playful intelligence...

And, where Cameron set out a rather standard -- in fact, clichéd -- political fable, Besson spins something far more original and daring, which, though related, bears much greater import for the moment.

DeHaan and Delevingne play a pair of government agents in the 28th century, where the government is a colossal interplanetary federation of peaceful union and diversity. The development of this federation, which is centred on an international space station known as Alpha and gives the film its title, is shown in a brisk and humorous montage at the film's opening.

No special qualifications in media studies are required to understand how Besson's obviously benevolent view of Alpha relates to his political feelings regarding a current wave of nationalistic fervour, particularly over the past few years in Europe, where he lives, and the United States, where he often works -- the two most famous and prestigious confederations so far in human history.

Yet Besson projects his serious ideas into his imagined future with good humour and playful intelligence; this film was a long-brewing project of his, based on a beloved French comic book series called "Valérian and Laureline". Judging from the evidence on the screen, it seems his imagination teemed fruitfully in the years he planned his adaptation, which, incidentally, became far firmer a realisation with the release of "Avatar".

Besson stuffs his film with the off-centre, the zanily coloured fun of a satirical comic (the kind not yet acquired by the Disney corporation), and his story follows a similarly loose pattern of pulp-fiction junketing. I affirm that, unlike other reviewers, I found nothing at all to complain about in the structure of the plot in Besson's script, or the artifices of the dialogue. They seem as though they were written by an affectionate comic book fan who wishes only to pay homage through his own comic creation, which is probably just about true.

Besson breaks rules of physics, chromatics, anatomy, geometry, romance, and nationalism; in these things, his film is a pleasure.

The dialogue may as well have been animated as text in white speech bubbles coming out of the characters' mouths, a little like the exclamations in Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and it would have been just as delightful. The performances were conducted in the same way, which is where, I confess, I did find something to complain about.

The essence of movie acting is the impression of a more and infinite being. Part of the essence of beauty is the element of surprise. The condition of humour and play, at its peak, is rebellion: rules must be broken for something to be funny. Besson breaks rules of physics, chromatics, anatomy, geometry, romance and nationalism; in these things, his film is a pleasure.

His actors, however, conform to his schemas of fantasy, speculation, pulp-fiction plot structure and grand political commentary. They're not allowed room to break rules of their own, to discover essences of their own, nor to invent methods for modes of being -- and they don't struggle to take it, either.

DeHaan and Delevingne, despite what you may read elsewhere, are mightily competent actors and happily engaging presences. But, as Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, they're constrained and their manners lack spontaneity and essential truth, just as the submerged monsters they encounter lack oxygen.

There's much more to note about Besson's film of peculiar interest -- like any good film, what one has to say about it never seems quite sufficient -- yet there's a distinctly fascinating aspect that I wish to draw attention to.

The allegory of shameful colonial histories is surprisingly closely drawn throughout the film.

It concerns a subject of burning historical and current significance, which seemed all the more immediate because of recent controversial remarks surrounding French President Emmanuel Macron soon after his electoral victory: the atrocities of colonialism.

The plot, as it emerges, concerns the Commander of Alpha (played by Clive Owen) and a large-scale cover-up of the destruction of a little-known planet, home to a low-tech and peaceful humanoid race, in which the commander is implicated.

The allegory of shameful colonial histories is surprisingly closely drawn: the regime fabricates an alternate story in which it paints itself and its guilty leaders in a good light; secret violations of human rights are committed, such as the torture of political prisoners for information and submission; witnesses and dissenters are discredited and silenced; the large machinery of the state is mobilised to thwart the oppressed peoples who seek independence and the means to self-determination; the leaders responsible for the atrocities justify their actions through fanatic jingoism and a false tribute to the banner virtues of "peace" and "progress"; and the resistance to oppression revolves quietly and in secret.

However, it is kept alive by its hope and belief in righteousness and liberty, and the beneficiaries of colonial exploitation are complicit, despite a complacent ignorance to the evils done in their interest.

Besson edifies his outrage and historical injustice with his proposed solution: the descendants and beneficiaries of the colonial wrongdoers are to acknowledge their unfair advantage owing to crimes and exploitation, take responsibility (which is distinct from guilt) for their unfair benefits and the resolution of the injustice, and return to the wronged victims what is rightfully theirs.

Besson recognises the power of speculative fiction to abstract real-world situations and ideas and uses the vacuum of artifice to straightforwardly set out a wholly real concept, as he sees it. If it's simple enough for a comic book fantasy to show audiences, why should a well-educated electorate struggle?