Book Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: The Art of the Film by Mark Salisbury

Written by Chad Derdowski

I don’t know you, but I’m going to make a bold assumption about the type of person you are. You probably got pretty excited when you first saw that trailer for Luc Besson’s live action adaptation of Valerian, didn’t you? I make that assumption based on the fact that you’re reading a review of a book of art from the film and the fact that I, the reviewer of said book of art from the film, also got pretty excited when I first saw that trailer. Like, really excited. While only vaguely familiar with the comics by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin (something I’ve since rectified), I have definitely enjoyed several of Besson’s films and … wow. I mean, you saw that trailer too, right? It was just beautiful, and seemed to offer a bold new sci-fi vision and a breath of fresh air in a world of sequels, reboots and rehashes.

Hey, I love Marvel movies and Star Wars, but man cannot live on bread alone, even if the bread is the best bread you’ve ever tasted and you’ve literally been waiting for it since you were a child and never, ever thought you’d get that bread in a million years. There’s still room in your belly for something else and quite frankly, it’s a whole lot healthier if you don’t just eat bread all the time. So the promise of Valerian got me really excited and again, I’m assuming you felt the same way, because why else would you be reading this if you weren’t?

And maybe the movie didn’t quite live up to the expectation. I’m not saying it was terrible, but maybe the story was a bit uneven and maybe the leads were completely unlikable and maybe they looked way too much like brother and sister and it was just really uncomfortable and borderline embarrassing to watch them fumble through a complete lack of chemistry. But damn… that movie sure was beautiful to look at, wasn’t it? Regardless of where you stand on the film’s quality, the one promise that it definitely delivered on was the boldly beautiful and fresh vision of a totally sweet-looking sci-fi film. And with that in mind, I offer you my review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: The Art of the Film by Mark Salisbury.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gave us a look at a million different aliens with a million different stories and this great big book (12.2 x 11 inches) does its best to shine a spotlight on all of them, along with the various locales and vehicles featured throughout the film and if applicable, a comparison to their original comic appearance. Not only that, this book shows us nearly every step it took to get there, from simple pencil sketches to digital mockups to finished product, which is something I appreciate and quite frankly expect from a book like this. So it does not disappoint. There are even some concepts and variations that didn’t make it into the film, but were deemed worthy of inclusion (and rightfully so) based on just being totally awesome.

These images are reproduced in stunning clarity, many of them full or two-page spreads. There are pre-production images, behind the scenes shots of actors in motion capture suits and great big paintings you kinda want to tear out and frame so you can hang them on your wall – all the stuff that’s supposed to be in a book like this. But despite this being an art book, I feel like the heart of this tome is in the writing. Readers are treated to various quotes and insights from director Luc Besson, for whom this film was a lifelong dream come true, as well as a fairly in-depth account of how it all came to be. We get a bit of a walk through of the movie itself and various details surrounding all of those creatures, locations and spaceships I was talking about earlier.

It’s not simply an information dump though; reading this book, it becomes clear just how important it was, on a personal level, for Besson to make this film and how crucial it was for it to be as imaginative as possible. The director talks of holding contests among artists to come up with as many unique creations as possible and, unlike most films, the process was less about meeting a deadline and more about crafting something truly special. The struggle to avoid repeating things that have been done a million times in a million different science-fiction films is discussed, along with the acceptance that the artists and designers were drawing from a deep well and that some repetition and familiarity were unavoidable and perhaps even necessary. I mean, Star Wars, John Carter, and Dune pretty much covered arid desert planets, right? So how do you make your desert planet unique and original and still pay homage to the great sci-fi deserts that no doubt inspired it? It all adds up to a pretty fun read and definitely a ride worth taking if you enjoyed the look of the film as much as I am assuming you did.

The one downfall? Pale gray text on shiny white pages. This book is not easy to read and it kind of sucks because you end up having to hold the book really close to your face or at a weird angle to read it. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s an odd choice for a book that’s so well put together and I have to wonder why they approved it. Would it have been that hard to just make the text black?

Readability issues aside, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: The Art of the Film is well worth your time if you’re the person I’ve been assuming you are throughout this entire review. It’s packed with information and insight, laid out in an attractive way that encourages the reader to dwell on each page, savoring the images, but compels you to turn the page to see what’s next. If you liked the way the Valerian movie looked, you’re going to like the way the Valerian book looks too and you’ll appreciate learning all about the dedication to the craft that went into that look. I assume so, anyway.

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