Home > Reviews > VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS – Alexandre Desplat

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When French director Luc Besson debuted his film The Fifth Element in 1997, it was hailed as a masterpiece of European science fiction, a visual feast for the senses. What people didn’t realize at the time was that, as good as The Fifth Element was, Besson was actually making that film because cinematic technology was not yet sophisticated enough for him to make what was his true passion project: a big screen adaptation of the French-language comic book series Valérian et Laureline, which Besson had grown up reading. Although most people outside of France will not have heard of it, Valérian et Laureline is actually very influential, and many commentators knowledgeable about the subject have noted that the original Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian, and Independence Day all contain visual and conceptual similarities to the comic, which pre-dates all of them. In hindsight, it is clear that The Fifth Element was Besson’s ‘dry run’ for this film, as it too shares ideas and design elements with Valérian.

Besson’s English-language adaptation – titled Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – is a swashbuckling futuristic space adventure that follows two intergalactic secret agents who fight crime across the span of the universe. Dane de Haan and Cara Delevingne star as the titular pair, co-workers who share a romantic spark, and who are drawn into an epic conspiracy that takes them from Big Market, a multi-dimensional bazaar on a desert planet, to Alpha, a gigantic space station, as part of a larger plot involving the peace-loving inhabitants of an idyllic beach-like planet, missing artifacts being fenced through the black market, potential corruption at the heart of the military, and a deadly ‘toxic zone’ that has infected Alpha and threatens to destroy the city. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but its scope allows for some of the most astonishingly brilliant visual flamboyance I have seen on screen in years; the design of the different alien creatures, the planets, the buildings, the costumes, the myriad special effects, are all simply magnificent.

The icing on the cake of all this wonderment is the film’s score, by Alexandre Desplat. This film represents the first time that Besson and Desplat have worked together – Besson’s usual composer is Eric Serra – but despite their lack of prior collaboration, Desplat has created what will likely go down as one of the highlight works of a career that is already overflowing with near-masterpieces. There has been speculation as to whether any of the music Desplat was intending to write for the Star Wars spinoff movie Rogue One last year, before Michael Giacchino took over, made it into Valerian, but at the time of writing this had neither been confirmed or denied. Irrespective of this issue, Valerian is a truly monumental achievement. Desplat was clearly enormously inspired by the film, and responded to it with a score that is abundantly creative, contains deeply impressive instrumental combinations and complicated compositional techniques, and has a number of interwoven themes that help clarify the story’s more confusing plot elements. Best of all, the score is just a ton of fun.

There are essentially four main themes that run through the score: one for Valerian, an associated ‘Heroic Valerian’ theme, a more romantic theme that represents the relationship between Valerian and Laureline, and a theme for the Pearls, the cat-like humanoid creatures who inhabit the planet Mül, and who are at the heart of the film’s central mystery. The opening cue, “Pearls on Mül,” sets the scene and introduces the tender and pretty Pearl theme at 0:42. The cue is, for the most part, gorgeously idyllic, filled with pastoral tones for piano and strings, and fluttering woodwinds that create a sense of serenity and warmth perfect for the paradise-like planet. The piece is adorned with effervescent orchestral and choral accents, especially expressive oboe lines, and an array of shimmering electronic tones reminiscent of the Dust theme from The Golden Compass. However, as it enters its second half, the cue becomes more threatening, with heavier drumbeats and martial brasses leading into the score’s first action sequence, where throbbing electronic and choral textures and stark string lines combine with a powerfully dominant orchestra. Clearly, things are not as utopian on Mül as one had been lead to believe.

After this opening sequence, the action shifts to Big Market, a pan-dimensional bazaar on a desert planet where a multitude of alien vendors sell wares from a hundred galaxies to tourists, and where Valerian and Laureline are about to embark on a mission to retrieve a stolen artifact from Igon Siruss (John Goodman), a smuggler who has a secret hideout in one of the city’s back alleys. The first five notes of “Reading the Memo” provide a deconstructed introduction to Valerian’s theme on flutes, underscoring the playful flirting and camaraderie between Valerian and Laureline as they journey to Big Market on a bus with a squadron of commandos. Big Market’s music has vaguely North African orchestrations that illustrate the desert planet setting – a choice which is perhaps a little obvious, but it’s still fun and musically compelling, especially when Desplat interjects a staccato version of Valerian’s theme underneath all the creative, exotic orchestrations and intricate rhythmic interplay.

“Big Market” accompanies Valerian as he enters the city, and presents several playful, upbeat, poppy variations on his theme – on piano at 0:03, on jaunty synths at 0:14 – which echo the Gyptian music from The Golden Compass crossed with the whimsy of something like The Secret Life of Pets. The subsequent “Flight Above the Big Market” offers a sweeping statement of Valerian’s theme as the camera zooms over and through the location, replete with clashing cymbals and glorious brass fanfares that are reminiscent of the Dragon Flight music from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“Showtime,” “Valerian in Trouble,” and “Bus Attack” underscore the film’s first primary action set piece, as Valerian retrieves the artifact from Igon Siruss, but is then forced to flee for his life with his hand stuck inside an inter-dimensional matter transfer box, trying desperately to get beyond the walls of Big Market to where Laureline and his team are waiting. Desplat’s action music is dense and thrilling, occasionally recalling the music he wrote for the 2002 film Nid de Guêpes; it is bolstered by a complicated array of electronic rhythmic layers, including some allusions to contemporary dub-step, as well as the low bass synth pulse that he has famously used in numerous scores since it first appeared in Birth in 2004.

There’s an unexpected but telling performance of the Pearl theme on ragged flutes at 1:02 of “Showtime,” as the identity of Igon Siruss’s buyers is revealed, as well as several deconstructed variations on Valerian’s theme that allude to the fact that, throughout the sequence, he’s literally in several dimensions at once, and therefore not fully whole. “Bus Attack” is monumental, with huge brass clusters, frenetic strings, and tumultuous percussion, all of which again reminds me of the action music from scores like Nid de Guêpes, Harry Potter, Godzilla, and The Golden Compass. This cue also marks the first appearance of a fabulous Elliot Goldenthal-esque brass ‘whine’ at 1:35 that recalls the action music from Interview with the Vampire, and which crops up numerous times throughout the score.

Having successfully escaped from Big Market, Valerian and Laureline head for Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets itself, in order to present the retrieved artifact to their commander, Arün Filitt (Clive Owen). “Arriving on Alpha” is a sequence of what I like to call ‘beautiful space ambiences,’ featuring a set of orchestral textures which depict loneliness, isolation, and coldness. However, the score is quickly back in action mode, beginning with the magnificent “Pearls Attack,” which explodes into a wonderful (but almost unrecognizable) re-setting of the Pearl theme as an action motif as the inhabitants of Mül attack a meeting of dignitaries and engulf them in slime-like cocoons, before unexpectedly making off with the enveloped body of Filitt. The ‘Goldenthal whine’ again forms a major part of the action material, before giving way to ominous processed voices, almost like throat singing, which lend the cue an eerie quality. The more comedic-sounding sequence in the cue’s second half gives a musical identity to the Shingouz, the little bird-like aliens who provide information to Valerian and Laureline about the identity of the attackers for a profit. Bouncy woodwind flutters and clanging metallic textures are the order of the day here.

“Valerian’s Armor” is a stunning action sequence in which Valerian, having learned the identity of the kidnappers from the Shingouz, dons his near-indestructible armor and blasts his way through Alpha in pursuit of the Pearls and Filitt. As Valerian crashes through walls and encounters a rapid-fire procession of extravagant creatures in increasingly lavish settings, Desplat finally presents a full performance of Valerian’s 9-note Action Theme on brass, bolstered by racing strings, tumultuous percussion lines, and a kinetic rhythmic pattern that has a fleeting resemblance to “Bishop’s Countdown” from James Horner’s Aliens.

The subsequent “Spaceship Chase” continues the action, but now in the space outside of Alpha rather than inside it, as Valerian finds himself pursuing a Pearl spacecraft while inside a sort of personal jet pack. The action here is slightly darker and more intense, but the orchestrations are stunningly detailed; this time Valerian’s theme is accompanied by throbbing string runs, echoing brass phrases that jump between instruments, processed orchestral textures that remind me of Olivier Derivière’s score for the video game Remember Me, and almost John Williams-esque use of flutes which adds to the sense of movement and speed. Listen especially to the astonishing sequence beginning at 2:06 where Desplat has different parts of the brass section doing three different things simultaneously – the trombones performing the ‘Goldenthal whine’, the trumpets playing a 5-note rhythmic motif, and the French horns keeping a completely different staccato beat underneath. It’s simply sensational.

The chase concludes with Valerian disappearing somewhere deep within Alpha’s ‘toxic zone,’ and Laureline resolves to rescue him, against the orders of her superiors. To this end Laureline enlists the help of Bob, an eccentric pirate with a submersible for hire, to take her to find something that will help her find her missing partner. “Submarine” presents a series of ominous, other-worldly, glassy textures for this underwater sequence through Alpha’s watery depths, featuring slow and stately string writing, revelatory brass crescendos, and atmospheric electronic tones. A dense, stylish action sequence towards the end underscores the desperate escape Laureline and Bob make from an immense sea creature; this leads into the cue “Medusa,” which underscores the scene where Laureline must encase herself inside a dangerous jellyfish-like creature that can somehow show her Valerian’s location. Here, unconventional, progressive electronic textures combine with a staccato piano motif counting down the seconds that she can remain inside the Medusa before it starts to affect her brain, and builds to a tense climax.

“Shoot,” contrary to what one would expect from the title, features warm string harmonies, tender emotional content, and the first notable performance of Valerian and Laureline’s love theme, which speaks to the increasingly strong romantic relationship between the pair after she finally finds him, deep in Alpha’s nether world. The subsequent “Fishing For Butterflies” is again misleading; it begins with a wave of enchanting harp glissandi (playing a motif coincidentally reminiscent of Alan Menken’s Beauty and the Beast) as Laureline is momentarily distracted by a translucent butterfly-like creature; the cue suddenly explodes into a frantic action sequence as she is unexpectedly caught on a ‘fishing line’ wielded by a Boulanbator, one of the dangerous, monstrous, primitive, secretive creatures who live in the area. As Valerian heroically leaps after her his action motif bursts forth, enshrouded in throbbing brass and whirling strings, but the Boulanbator manages to get away.

Laureline, having been kidnapped, is forced to take part in a procession serving food to the grotesque Boulanbator king – oblivious to the fact that she is going to be one of the dishes. “Le Souper du Roi” underscores this scene with a pseudo-comical march, featuring Middle Eastern-esque woodwinds, effervescent flutes, tapped ethnic percussion, yelping vocals, and low, churning cellos low down in the mix which clarify the fact that the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ motif is actually a minor theme for the Boulanbators themselves. Meanwhile, Valerian is sneaking into the Boulanbator city to rescue her, having obtained the help of Bubble (Rihanna), a shape-shifting ‘glampod’ burlesque dancer he encounters in an alien strip club run by Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke). “Boulanbator Combat” underscores the rescue itself with yet more rich and powerful action music; cleverly, it adopts some of the heavier Boulanbator orchestrations – bulbous brass writing, more overtly bombastic percussion – but plays it contrapuntally against fleeting references to both Valerian’s action theme and the new love theme. The Boulanbator sequence ends with “Bubble,” a tragedy-laden piece that underscores Bubble’s death scene, her having been mortally wounded during the fight with the Boulanbator king. A lush, moving statement of the love theme is heard as she implores Valerian and Laureline to embrace their feelings for each other while they can.

The finale, both of the score and the film, begins with “Pearl’s World,” as Emperor Haban Limaï (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of the Pearls of Mül, explains what happened to their planet to Valerian and Laureline, and tries to justify their actions in kidnapping Commander Filitt. The cue is a rich tapestry of sounds and textures, both acoustic and electronic. Dark, ominous synth pulses combine with dissonant orchestral tones; an anguished variation on the Pearl theme emerges, but it slowly gives way to a reprise of the lush, elegant textures from the opening cue. Eventually the idyll is overrun by a harshly militaristic action sequence for lively brass and pulsing pianos, during which Filitt’s role in the mystery concerning the ‘toxic heart’ of Alpha is revealed.

“The City of 1000 Planets” is full of moodily chugging string ostinatos which sound similar to Snape’s theme from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and which are overlaid with an elegant theme for strings, woodwinds, and lightly tingling metallic items. A detached, lonely-sounding statement of the Pearl theme for piano and celesta towards the second half of the cue enables the listener to empathize with the Pearls of Mül, who long to return to their home world. The subsequent “I Am A Soldier” is a sentimental, nostalgic, highly emotional version of Valerian’s action theme for slow pianos and soft strings, as Valerian and Laureline choose love over duty, and finally admit their feelings for one another; it segues into their love theme during the second half, finalizing their relationship with a warm and tender musical acknowledgement.

The penultimate cue, “Pearls Power,” is an exotic statement of the Pearl theme, featuring the welcome return of the magical sounding electronic tones which had been absent from the score since the first cue; the music becomes grander and more vibrant as it progresses, through the addition of dominant brass chords, choral textures, and enormous crescendos of soaring scope and power. “Final Combat” underscores the multi-location final battle between the now-rogue Commander Filitt and his deadly K-Tron robot warriors, and Valerian, Laureline, the Pearls, and the forces loyal to the government. It starts slowly, with fragments of both the Pearl theme and Valerian’s action theme, and moves through an anticipatory section of call-and-response brass writing that recalls the build up to “Ice Bear Combat” from The Golden Compass, before eventually emerging into a brutal closing sequence full of heavy strings, relentless percussion, and electronic embellishments. The sequence beginning at 4:06 pits the final statement of the ‘Goldenthal whine’ against a complicated bed of rhythmic pulses that jump between brass, strings, and tom-toms, prior to a brief final sweep of the Pearl theme. It all ends on a slightly downbeat note – it’s pretty, but muted, and there is no final heroic flourish of catharsis and victory – but this is a minor quibble.

The soundtrack album, on the European Europacorp label, is fleshed out with the inclusion of numerous songs, several of which are actually quite good. David Bowie’s psychedelic classic “Space Oddity” appropriately underscores the film’s time-lapse opening sequence montage of meetings between humans and alien species over several hundred years. Two original songs, “I Feel Everything” written by Pharrell Williams and Cara Delevingne and performed by Delevingne, and “A Million On My Soul” performed by Alexiane, are heard over the end credits. Delevingne performs her song with an unusually strong English accent and a hint of reggae, while Alexiane clearly wants to be a French version of Sia. One further song of interest is “Bubble Dance,” written by Julien Rey and performed by Rey featuring Clemence Gabrielidis, which is the burlesque song Rihanna dances to immediately prior to the scene where Valerian convinces her to help him rescue Laureline.

As you can see, I have gone into a great deal of detail and exposition in this review, mainly to impress upon everyone reading this how much of a wonderful achievement this score is. In my reviews I occasionally rail against scores which, in my opinion, fail to meet the basic needs of what I feel a film score should be. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the diametric opposite of that, and this is why I feel the need to praise it with as much vociferousness as I criticize those others.

Firstly, it’s a score which is a perfect fit for the film it accompanies; Desplat understands the dramatic and narrative needs of the story Besson wants to tell, and tailors the mood and tone of the music so that it sits alongside and complements the film’s visual flair. Secondly, it has a clear structure, an internal architecture, which is tailored to the film. There are themes for the protagonists that develop sequentially and in a logical manner; there are secondary motifs which flesh out and give identity to the supporting characters; and the themes are written in such a way that they complement each other n intelligent ways, and are capable of being performed contrapuntally to illustrate conflict.

Thirdly, the orchestrations are sensational. Desplat uses the entire orchestra to the fullest of its potential, and augments it with sophisticated sounding electronic textures that add depth and atmosphere. Importantly, the electronics aren’t used in place of real instruments – they are used because of the unique timbre and tone that only those particular electronic instruments have, and they complement rather than overpower the acoustic elements. Finally, the actual composition itself is interesting from a purely musical point of view; the rhythmic ideas and the performance techniques (like the brass whine) all show that Alexandre Desplat is a composer with genuine skill, knowledge, and creativity.

So many modern scores fail to meet these basic standards of dramatic intent, compositional excellence, and emotional appropriateness, that I feel like I want to stand up and yell it from the rooftops when a score finally does all these things, and does them so well. Yes, clearly, not every film needs something as grandiose as the music on display here, and the actual musical content required by different films varies enormously. But, still, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that most film scores cover these minimum standards regarding dramatic narrative and compositional intelligence; it used to be the norm.

I fear that, like so many scores before it, the music of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will be overlooked purely for the fact that the film itself has not been well-received. It’s true that some of the dialogue is a little ropey, probably due to the fact that it was translated from French into English by a Frenchman. It’s also true that some of the thematic ideas get a little preachy, and that some of the detail of the plot points will get lost on those who don’t pick up all the little nuances and references in the screenplay. However, whatever drawbacks the actual film itself may have, Alexandre Desplat’s music is beyond reproach. For me, it joins The Golden Compass at the very top of the list in terms of his career works to date, and it is the first bonafide five-star masterpiece of 2017. In fact, it’s so good, the only thing I can see possibly de-throning it as Score of the Year is a certain score by a certain Mr. Williams set in a galaxy far, far away; and, even then, he’s going to have his work cut out.

Note: this is a review of the soundtrack as per the European release on the Europacorp label. The US release of the soundtrack features the same music, but with a different running order. Five cues – “Big Market,” “Bus Attack,” “Arriving on Alpha,” “Spaceship Chase,” and “Medusa” – are presented out of sequence and interspersed between the songs. I recommend the sequencing shown below as the best listening experience.

Buy the Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Pearls on Mül (7:36)
  • Reading the Memo (1:23)
  • Big Market (2:05)
  • Flight Above the Big Market (2:44)
  • Showtime (2:38)
  • Valerian In Trouble (1:38)
  • Bus Attack (3:08)
  • Arriving on Alpha (2:06)
  • Pearls Attack (4:05)
  • Valerian’s Armor (2:09)
  • Spaceship Chase (3:33)
  • Submarine (3:00)
  • Medusa (1:59)
  • Shoot (1:35)
  • Fishing for Butterflies (1:58)
  • Le Souper du Roi (1:59)
  • Boulanbator Combat (3:02)
  • Bubble (2:32)
  • Pearl’s World (6:24)
  • The City of 1000 Planets (3:50)
  • I Am A Soldier (2:04)
  • Pearls Power (1:49)
  • Final Combat (7:06)
  • Space Oddity (written and performed by David Bowie) (5:18)
  • I Feel Everything (written by Pharrell Williams and Cara Delevingne, performed by Cara Delevingne) (3:02)
  • Jamming (written by Bob Marley, performed by Bob Marley & The Wailers) (3:19)
  • We Trying To Stay Alive (written by Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, Michel Prakazrel, Wyclef Jean, and John Forte, performed by Wyclef Jean & The Refugee Allstars) (3:13)
  • A Million On My Soul – Radio Edit (written by Alexiane Silla, Igor Kempeneers, and Mathieu Carratier, performed by Alexiane) (2:59)
  • Rappcats (Instrumental Version) (written by Otis Jackson Jr., performed by Quasimoto) (2:02)
  • Bubble Dance (written by Julien Rey, performed by Julien Rey feat. Clemence Gabrielidis) (2:25)
  • The World Is Going Up In Flames (written by Charles Bradley, Thomas R. Brenneck, Michael Deller, David Anthony Guy, Homer Steinweiss, and Leon Michels, performed by Charles Bradley) (3:22)
  • A Million On My Soul – Original Version (written by Alexiane Silla, Igor Kempeneers, and Mathieu Carratier, performed by Alexiane) (4:07)

Running Time: 100 minutes 10 seconds

Europacorp 3700551782161 (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicolas Charron and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Cecile Tournesac. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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  1. Robert M.
    July 28, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Great review!

  2. hp_gof
    July 28, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Great review! Finally someone who noticed virtuosity in this particular Desplat’s score and was able to put it into words 🙂 I have a question about four themes you mentioned. I agree about the Pearls’ theme and Valerian’s action/heroic theme because they’re obvious. But don’t you think that the melody you called Valerian’s theme is just the Big Market theme? Because it appears only in three tracks at the beginning (Reading the Memo, Big Market, The Flight Above the Big Market) during the action sequence at the Big Market. Does it appear later? By the way, I can’t hear any particular melody which represents Valerian&Laureline romantic theme, could you describe it more precisely (how many notes does it consist of or where exactly is it used)? Thank you!

  3. Michael
    July 31, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    Nice review. What Desplat did here was truly an achievement. Now, if he did Rogue One, his score would have been different from this one. Also, Arriving To Alpha seems to be a variation of the Valerian theme for french horns and it’s repeated at the end of Final Combat.

    I agree that the cue fizzle out, but I assume a song was used to close the movie same way Space Oddity was used to start it, so Desplat didn’t got to do the final scene where he could blast the main theme like he did in Rise Of The Guardians and Godzilla.

  4. Ulrich
    August 5, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Great review of an inventive and very varried Score.

  5. Costas Chrysanthakopoulos
    August 16, 2017 at 11:39 am

    The first Desplat masterpiece after his prolific year 2014…

  1. July 29, 2017 at 2:25 am

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