Director Luc Besson is back in the world of fantastical science fiction with this week’s new release Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Based on the popular graphic novel of the same name, the story follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two agents of a peacekeeping force tasked with policing the human territories of the galaxy.
The pair are given an assignment that sends them to Alpha, a massive complex incorporating thousands of alien cultures, all living harmoniously with each other. There’s a mysterious threat lurking somewhere within Alpha that threatens to upend the peaceful environment and which could spread to the entire universe. It’s up to Valerian and Laureline to not only find it but stop it before it destroys the denizens of Alpha as well as everyone else.
The first poster sells the movie as a space epic, pure and simple. Besson is referenced at the top as the director of The Fifth Element and Lucy, establishing his genre bonafides. But the main image has two characters whose faces we can’t see standing next to a giant ship with its boarding ramp down. So it’s really trying to play up the visuals here.
The next just shows Valerian and Laureline next to each other, each appearing on a different half of the V design that’s featured on the poster. There’s no copy, just the previous directorial credits of Besson as a way to make sure audiences know the movie has some bonafide credentials. It’s a nice use of whitespace though and while it might appear a bit simplistic it also doesn’t go too far in the other direction and try to crowd thousands of tiny alien images into one design.
The theatrical poster uses the “V” format from the previous one but shifts it over to the left a bit. It also adds a lot more of the creatures and characters we’ll meet in the story, from obese slugs to cute little critters to Rihanna. A mysterious alien peers out from the center of the “V”, indicating that they may be more important to the story than everyone else. While I don’t usually put much stock in these things, there *does* seem to be a nod to Besson’s The Fifth Element in upper right, with a sign saying “…orben’s.” While the first letter is cut off, it could be “Korben’s,” which would reference Bruce Willis’ character in that movie.
What the hell is even happening in the first trailer? Honestly, there’s almost nothing about the story here, it’s all about showing off the visuals and insane look of the movie and works incredibly well on that front. It’s great, it’s bonkers and I want to see it immediately.
The second trailer begins as Valerian and his partner are given their latest assignment, which involves big monsters on a shuttle moving across the desert. From there it’s on to Alpha, the giant city of worlds, some place that’s meant to be a neutral paradise in the violent universe. Something is amiss, though, and there are sinister forces that must be stopped. That’s where the story explanation stops and it becomes all about the visuals, showing speeding ships and strange aliens and everything else.
It’s so great looking. It’s being sold as being very much in the vein of The Fifth Element and looks funny, comically violent and mind-bending in the best possible ways. I’m just totally on board here.
The final trailer doubles down on the incredible visuals, focusing on the alien inhabitants of Alpha before explaining the peace there has been threatened and it’s up to Valerian and Laureline to stop it. What that threat is never gets explained as we’re too busy watching ships navigate tight passages, huge monsters lunging after their prey and more.
Online and Social
When you load the official website you’re greeted with a bit of marketing hyperbole about how groundbreaking the movie is and why you need to see it in 3D. On that main page there are prompts to “Watch the Trailer” and “Get Tickets” as well as links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles. You can also choose to “Play the Game,” which takes you to page from which you can download a mobile game from Google Play or Apple’s App Store.
Using the menu that opens up when you click the icon in the top right, the first section is “Videos” and is where you can find the trailers and TV spots. Next is “About the Film,” which has a synopsis of the movie’s story.
You can explore “The World of Valerian” and learn more about the characters, aliens and the worlds they all inhabit in the next section. After that there’s a “Gallery” with several stills as well as a few behind the scenes shots. Finally “Social” not only has links to the social profiles but also a page of embedded updates from those pages.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots started running in late April that were focused on showing the audience the amazing visuals that are to be seen on Alpha and therefore in the movie. There’s some voiceover that hints at the conflict but mostly it’s a “Wow, this looks incredible” strategy being employed here. Future commercials would feature more of the story, or at least the premise, as well as some of the action and humor of the movie. As review embargoes broke, more commercials would incorporate some of the praise the movie was receiving.
The movie had some promotional help from other companies as well, including Lexus, which made a big deal about unveiling the Skyjet, a concept vehicle it designed and created for the movie, at an event with DeHaan.
Outdoor and online ads used the key art in various ways and social ads were run as new trailers were released.
Media and Publicity
While there had been lots of conversations about the movie in advance of this, the big coming-out took place at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, where Besson teased footage and talked about the process the movie has taken on its way to the screen, which included encountering the source comic’s creator while making The Fifth Element years ago. That screening generated tons of positive buzz for the movie, a new photo being released to the general public and the general sense that this was going to save the sci-fi genre when it came out a year later.
Just before the first teaser trailer hit a first look at Rihanna’s flapper character was released that provided some details but which mostly was about setting the stage for more craziness to come.
Around the time of the second trailer an op-ed in Wired pointed out some of the public perception problems the movie is facing as it tries to appeal to a mainstream audience. First, the campaign plays up its origins as a groundbreaking graphic novel. But that GN is from France and isn’t something many American readers are going to be widely aware of. Second, that source story *did* influence lots of what’s been seen over the last 30 years of sci-fi cinema, which means it runs the risk of feeling derivative of the very things that wouldn’t exist without it. Those are both great points that could indeed hamstring how the campaign’s message is received.
As part of the emphasis on the visuals of the movie, a two-hour behind the scenes feature was taken to a special effects industry event in Germany.
STX sought to take advantage of a very large platform and placed the movie’s opening scene in front of Spider-Man: Homecoming at select theaters. That was an effort to reach an apparently relevant audience and get them talking about Valerian, hopefully eager to come back and see the full thing. The movie’s opening scene continued to be the focus of at least a good amount of the press, including this interview with Besson where he talked about how he conceived and shot that sequence.
First let’s address how this campaign ties to the past. Specifically, there are large swaths of the push that are meant to either overtly or more subtly remind the audience how much they enjoyed The Fifth Element, Besson’s last big-scale outer space comedy adventure. The message here is that if you have fond memories of that movie, something reinforced by a recent limited theatrical rerelease to mark its 20th anniversary, you’ll absolutely want to check out this latest effects-driven movie.
Moving beyond that, though, the message of the campaign is that there’s a whole universe of adventure ready to explore. DeHaan and Delevingne may not be huge draws in and of themselves, but the marketing makes the case that they’re suitable bodies to watch running and jumping through the alien worlds that have been created. There are multiple times in the campaign where we’re told this comes from Besson’s unmatched imagination and it’s that which forms the crux of the value proposition to the audience. What remains to be seen is if that’s enough to make moviegoers comfortable enough to choose an original story (albeit one that’s based on existing material) with so many franchises and known quantities currently in theaters.