Review by C.J. Bunce

The appeal for fans of this summer’s big-budget science fiction adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has been the greatest for its spectacular visuals.  The film was a labor of love for director Luc Besson, whose science fiction classic The Fifth Element stands alone in the sci-fi genre for its elaborate designs and completely new look at the future.  Besson fell in love with the French comic book source material by Jean-Claude Mézières that featured space pilots Valerian and Laureline.  Besson says he counts Laureline as his first love, “She was totally free and badass, and a very modern heroine.”  For years Besson did not think an adaptation could be done, until he watched James Cameron’s Avatar, and that film was the impetus for him to begin to look at the idea anew.  The result became Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

A film that pushes the possibilities of a future that is not so bleak and dystopian–as so many science fiction films paint the future–deserves a proper account to detail its creation.  That book is Mark Salisbury’s The Art of the Film: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a full-color, wall-to-wall visual, hardcover chronology of the concept art and photographs of the film’s characters, planets, spaceships, and costumes.  Well-known for his behind the scenes looks at Crimson Peak, Prometheus, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Elysium, and Alice in Wonderland, and his landmark series on creating comic books from the viewpoint of the industry’s best, including Artists on Comic Art and Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, Salisbury provides more here than an edited accumulation of imagery.  He tells both the development of the film scene-by-scene from beginning to end, and interweaves the framework for the story on the screen.

Salisbury’s primary source in the book is Besson himself, who cites the creations he used in the film when he adhered to Mézières’s original vision from the source material, and when–and why–he didn’t.  It’s a testament to his adaptation that Mézières approved of his many creations and adaptations, including Valerian and Laureline’s famous ship, the Intruder. 

No expense was spared by Besson in creating Valerian with complete artistic freedom.  His development of a creative team was unprecedented.  Instead of taking the traditional route in developing the team–such as hiring thirty designers working very fast–as used for traditional films, his requirements for his effects-laden film were far greater than normal, requiring more outsourcing to multiple teams, including Industrial Light and Magic.  But instead of hiring a core team of thirty key creators for three months, he hired five creators for a year.  “We sent a message to more than 1,000 design schools saying, ‘We are going to make a design film and if you want to participate, submit an alien, a spaceship, and a world,'” he said.  He received 3,000 entries.  The lucky five chosen were Patrice Garcia, who had worked with Besson on The Fifth Element and Arthur and the Invisibles, Ben Mauro (Elysium, The Hobbit), book designer Marc Simonetti, illustrator Alain Brion, and artist Feng Shu.  Veteran storyboard/concept artist Sylvain Despretz (Alien Resurrection) joined the team, and it is their artwork and ideas that readers primarily will find throughout the book–and in the film.

The book also includes the winning artists, and their designs and the final filmed costumes, of Besson’s separate worldwide costume design contest, which we reported on here at borg.com back in October 2015.  These designs are proof positive that Besson’s brand of outside-the-universe thinking can result in creations that truly look out of this world.  To Besson’s credit he also provides imaginative names for his alien species that feel appropriate to the visual creations.  So often in science fiction one of the biggest faults of writers is strange and unpronounceable groupings of letters.  Not so with Besson.

Highlights include a thorough discussion of the procession of aliens in the movie’s prologue, an explanation of the densely populated mall town referred to as Big Market, and the concept artwork that began with today’s current International Space Station, and culminated, after a few hundred years of add-on stations, in the “Alpha” city in the film–the title’s City of a Thousand Planets.

Here are some two-page excerpts from the book:

Fans of the film will not want to miss Mark Salisbury’s The Art of the Film: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, available now here from Amazon.

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