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Who is Valerian and why haven't Americans heard of him before?

Posted July 23

Along with Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” and the raunchy female-led comedy “Girl Trip,” the other major release hitting theaters this weekend is one that, just from the title anyway, probably won’t mean much to 90 percent of American audiences: an English-language French import directed by Luc Besson called “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

This zany sci-fi flick starring Dane DeHaan and actress-turned-model Cara Delevingne is, to put it mildly, the box-office underdog this weekend, according to the LA Times.

So it might be puzzling to learn that “Valerian” isn’t just the most expensive movie in French history (by a factor of nearly three, according to screenrant.com), but it’s also the most expensive independently financed movie of all time, too, according to indiewire.com. In fact, depending on the source, it reportedly cost somewhere between $30 million and $80 million more than even “Dunkirk.”

Maybe the most head-scratching part of all, though, is that, unlike in the U.S. where it already seems to have “cult classic” written all over it, among European audiences, “Valerian” stands a very good chance of becoming a massive hit and spawning a franchise.

So what is “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and why aren’t Americans more familiar with it? And how come it’s such a big deal across the pond? To answer those questions, here’s a rough guide to the worlds of Valerian and what Americans have been missing out on for five decades:

• “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is based on a wildly popular (in Europe, that is) and hugely influential (not just in Europe) French sci-fi comic series written by Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières.

• The comics follow the adventures of Valérian and his romantic and professional partner Laureline, 28th-century “spatio-temporal” agents employed by the Terran empire to protect the galaxy and their timeline against possible time travel-related threats.

• The very first Valérian story was published in 1967 in “Pilote” magazine, a French publication intended to showcase new Franco-Belgian comics. (“Pilote” was also the launch pad for another French comic duo, “Asterix and Obelix.”) From the second volume (or “album”) on, however, the Valérian comics were published as a standalone series, remaining in print for more than four decades under various titles, including “Valérian, Spatio-Temporal Agent” and “Valérian and Laureline,” before finally ending their run in 2010, roughly 1,100 pages later.

• Since 1967, the Valérian comics have sold more than 10 million copies in 21 languages, according to Variety. English versions, however, have been slow coming with only a few volumes ever having been translated prior to 2010 when UK-based publisher Cinebook finally began releasing English editions.

• “Valérian and Laureline” seems to have been a key influence on, among other things, the Star Wars movies, according to wired.com — albeit one that has largely gone unacknowledged despite some pretty uncanny similarities. For instance, in one story, Laureline is enslaved by a sluggish, obese crime lord who forces her to dress in a gold bikini onboard a floating yacht. Even the design of Valérian and Laureline's saucer-shaped spaceship, the Astroship XB982, bears a striking resemblance to the Millennium Falcon.

• The comics were also a major source of inspiration for Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element.” In fact, Mézières was brought on to help with the movie’s visual design, working as a concept artist alongside fellow French comic legend Moebius, aka Jean Giraud, and he actually encouraged Besson to make use of elements from the Valérian comics.

• Although the movie's full title is most similar to a different Valérian story, it specifically adapts the sixth volume, 1975’s “Ambassador of the Shadows,” which was also the first volume ever translated into English (in 1981). However, it takes quite a few liberties with the source material. In the comics, for instance, Valérian is satire of violent machismo — a classic, square-jawed, Flash Gordon-style “man of action,” loyal to a fault and quick to rush in to any situation no matter how dangerous. Not necessarily what might come to mind with DeHaan.

• Regardless of what the movie title might suggest, in the comics, Laureline is as much a main character as Valérian, if not more so, and is often depicted as the more intelligent, more capable of the two — a stark contrast to how women in sci-fi were generally written at the time, according to the Atlantic.

• Unlike Valérian, who was born in the late 27th century, the character of Laureline was an 11th-century peasant who was brought back to the future by Valérian after she saved his life on a mission.

• The name Laureline was invented by Christin and Mézières, but has since been adopted into the real world with the first baby named Laureline born in 1968, just one year after the comic debuted.

• Assuming "Valerian" does manage to find its audience, Besson has already written the script for one sequel and is hard at work on another, according to slashfilm.com, hoping to achieve where other recent would-be sci-fi blockbusters like "John Carter" have failed, and become a space opera franchise in the vein of Star Wars.

Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.

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