Worldbuilding With Luc Besson: Breathing Life Into The City Of A Thousand Planets

This article was originally published on on 13-07-2017

In 1969, a ten-year-old Luc Besson opened up the latest issue of Pilote, a French magazine that featured popular comics such as Asterix and Barbe-Rouge. Inside, he found the first two pages of Valérian et Laureline, a science fiction comic strip that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would change his life indefinitely.

There’s this comic book every Wednesday. Inside, I discovered the two first pages of the first album of ‘Valerian’ … I was ten years old and I was like, “Oh my god, what is this thing?”

This isn’t just a sentimental anecdote; it’s a huge part of Valerian‘s marketing. EuropaCorp want you to know that they’re about to bring “a vision a lifetime in the making” to your local theater, but what can we expect from the visionary’s latest venture? To find out, let’s take a look at how Besson has given life to the city of a thousand planets.

Pandora’s Box: Filming The Impossible In A Post-Avatar Era

Mül, home of the Pearls [Credit: EuropaCorp]
Mül, home of the Pearls [Credit: EuropaCorp]

Besson has been dreaming about putting Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ science fiction series on the big screen since 1969, so why wait until 2017? Despite his ambitions, the director did not believe an adaptation of Valérian and Laureline was possible until he saw the motion capture techniques utilized in James Cameron’s Avatar:

“The environment was just crazy, it’s like aliens everywhere and world’s everywhere. When I was working on ‘The Fifth Element’ with Mézières, my designer from ‘Valerian’, he was the one saying “why don’t you do ‘Valerian’? Why do you do this ‘Fifth Element’ thing?”

“I mean, the technology was not good. At the time, it was not possible. And then, way later, ‘Avatar’ arrived and ‘Avatar’ makes everything possible.There’s no limits anymore.”

Avatar‘s real-time CGI, which generated a ‘rough draft’ of the film’s habitat, gave major studios a new toolkit that theoretically made anything possible — as long as they have a creative team capable of imagining it.

The cinematic parallel’s between Avatar and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are clear, but the latter faces a different challenge to Cameron’s revolutionary sci-fi hit. While Avatar looked to create an entirely new environment with Pandora, Valerian must adapt the work of Christin and Mézières — a universe that devoted fans are already familiar with, and therefore have great expectations for.

This explains why the film is being marketed as Luc’s life-long passion project. He’s a part of the fan community, and Avatar‘s game-changing technology has given him everything he needs to share his love for the franchise with the world. But Besson isn’t solely relying on his child-like adoration on the franchise to make Valerian a success. Instead, the director has his own process that should give audiences an authentic journey to the 28th century.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Concept Artists:

Alpha (Credit: EuropaCorp)
Alpha (Credit: EuropaCorp)

The upcoming sci-fi adventure centers on Valerian and Laureline as they travel to Alpha (above), a sprawling metropolis where you’ll find thousands of species from across the universe.

This city is where intelligent lifeforms come together to share cultural and scientific information. It’s a bold venture for the director, but the man responsible for Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element has learned more than a few tricks throughout his long-lasting career, and it looks as though he’ll be utilizing every one of them for Valerian.

In order to create a diverse multi-species population, Besson has been working with concept artists from around the world, ensuring that the many characters showcased on Alpha would come from a variety of artistic visions. According to The Film Theorists, each of these artists worked alone, with little-to-no knowledge of what imagery their fellow illustrators were creating — giving the unique traits of these species a greater sense of individuality.

Kortan Dahuk Concept Art [Credit: Ben Mauro/EuropaCorp]
Kortan Dahuk Concept Art [Credit: Ben Mauro/EuropaCorp]

Besson’s technique is an innovative effort to materialize Valerian‘s limitless diversity on-screen. Each species comes from a vastly different environment, and therefore shouldn’t have aesthetic similarities.

The results speak for themselves. It’s immediately clear, for example, that the Kortan Dahuk (above) and the Pearls (below) have evolved from entirely different habitats, and are as alien to each other as they are to us. They may share a humanoid structure, but Kortan Dahuk’s home planet, Kas-ônar, has very little in common with Kül, home of the Pearls, so it’s integral that their individual backgrounds represent their form.

Fan-favorite Youtube channel The Film Theorists discussed these parallels at length, stating that:

‘Valerian’ became known for its progressive themes. Their stories promoted ideals like diversity, feminism. So when Luc Besson hired artists from Singapore, France and other countries to design Alpha and its inhabitants, he was doing more than just creative problem solving. He was honoring the spirit of the Valerian comics.

In short, Besson has found a way to embrace the 28th century’s majestic multiculturalism.

The Pearls (Credit: EuropaCorp)
The Pearls (Credit: EuropaCorp)

This is just one of the many techniques Luc Besson has used to successfully bring Valerian to life. Just like fellow visionaries Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron, Besson’s previous success with The Fifth Element gave him a mandate to make bold storytelling decisions. 20 years after its release, his creation of The Fifth Element‘s unique world is still a remarkable achievement. This is still adored by fans because while there are many similarly quirky sci-fi environments in cinema’s history, Besson is a storyteller who allows us to fully explore this imaginative world.

Last year, a common criticism among the Star Wars community was that many of the fantastic species created for Rogue One, which were explored at length with their own featurette, weren’t appropriately shown throughout the film. While the sci-fi prequel was ultimately a success, it’s clear that some fans felt like a new series of interesting species had been created, without being available for the audience to enjoy. When it comes to Valerian, it’s unlikely that Besson will face similar criticism because he’s a director that arguably prioritizes our enjoyment of his worlds over our connection to his characters.

Welcome To The Fhloston Paradise!

Although there are many scenes throughout The Fifth Element that are devoted to worldbuilding, the most memorable is surely ‘The Diva Dance’ — an operatic sequence that immersed viewers into the Fhloston Paradise’s otherworldly surroundings.

Inva Mula (who voiced the character) and Maïwenn Le Besco’s incredible performance as Diva Plavalaguna added to the film’s outlandish, futuristic decadence, showing that Besson isn’t afraid to devote significant amounts of a film’s running time to immerse viewers into the protagonist’s surroundings.

This technique, which will surely be utilized in Valerian, has not gone unnoticed. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once noted that whether you’re invested in The Fifth Element‘s major storyline or not, the film should be celebrated for its world-building techniques:

“Like “Metropolis” (1926) or “Blade Runner,” it offers such extraordinary visions that you put your criticisms on hold and are simply grateful to see them.”

Blade Runner [Credit: Warner Bros.]
Blade Runner [Credit: Warner Bros.]

Ebert’s comparisons to Metropolis and Blade Runner are especially relevant when you consider that both films feature extensive sequences solely devoted to broadening the audiences’ understanding of their respective environments. This shows that, just like Fritz Lang and Ridley Scott, Besson is most interested in the audience’s ability to believe in the worlds he creates. Of course, narrative structure is always important, but showcasing a fully realized Valerian universe is his top priority.

This is fantastic news for the general audience, proving that Valerianisn’t just a treat for fans of the source material. The awe-inspiring environments can be enjoyed whether you were previously familiar with those planets or not. The film’s trailer appropriately invites everyone to join Besson’s on-screen explorations, and it’s an offer fans can’t refuse.


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