Valerian and Laureline

While learning more about the movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec directed by Luc Besson and the comic of the same name by Jacques Tardi, I stumbled across another French comic which was recently adapted by Besson. The comic is Valérian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. The movie, called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, completely slipped under my radar. Because I love a good space opera, I immediately set out to see the movie and read some issues of the comic.

The comic started its run in November 1967. To put it in context, the original Star Trek was still on the air in the United States and Patrick Troughton was playing the title character of Doctor Who in England. It’s pure pulp action Sci Fi, reminding me most of Buck Rogers with a touch of Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure. The artwork, particularly in the first two installments, looks like it’s inspired by Mad Magazine and there is a definite satirical edge to the stories. The characters of Valérian and Laureline also remind me a little of Jamie and Zoe, the Doctor’s traveling companions at the time, but with some of their personality traits mixed up. Laureline, like Jamie McCrimmon, is from the past and doesn’t always want to follow the rules. Valérian, like Zoe, thinks highly of himself, and seems to need rescuing from time to time. I’m not convinced these similarities are deliberate. I suspect there’s an element of the zeitgeist of the period in these passing resemblances.

Fans of Valérian and Laureline are also fast to point out many similarities between the French comic and Star Wars which would come out a decade later. I gather George Lucas has acknowledged the French comic’s influence on the look of his world.

Jumping ahead to the movie, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a gem. It captured the spirit of the comic very well and I thought presented a dandy and cohesive story with some cool science fictional ideas that made valid commentary on what can happen when indigenous peoples find themselves caught between two civilizations at war. Valerian and Laureline themselves are introduced during a special ops mission at a market that exists in a different dimension from our own. I loved the way that concept was portrayed on screen.

I enjoyed the performances of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. They’re not your usual Hollywood romantic couple. In fact, they seemed just a little uncomfortable with this whole romance thing, but it worked for me because that’s the way romance often works in real life. It’s figuring out how you each work, and not having the writer put phrases in your mouth that the other party has to be a moron to misunderstand and pout about until they make up. The film also features a truly outstanding performance by Rihanna as an alien called Bubble. I also loved the cameos by Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer.

As a bonus, I’ve discovered that about ten years ago, Valerian and Laureline was turned into a French-Japanese co-produced anime. From what I’ve seen so far, the anime’s story diverges from the comic’s, but it still looks fun. I definitely need to watch a few more episodes.

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good space opera. If you want to see my serialized space opera story, please drop by my Patreon site. You can read the first story of my Firebrandt’s Legacy for free. If you pledge just one dollar, you can read nine more stories right now. If you remain a patron, you’ll get each new story as its released. Stop by and check out Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

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Vampyr

A few weeks ago, I discovered a vampire film from the 1930s that I had never encountered before. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the movie Vampyr was filmed about the same time as Universal’s Dracula but was released about a year later. The film features an original script with elements inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories “Carmilla” and “The Room in the Dragon Volant” which appeared in the collection In a Glass Darkly.

Unlike other vampire films of the period, this doesn’t involve sinister castles in Eastern Europe. Instead, at its heart, the film feels a lot like some of Hammer Studio’s better vampire films from the 1960s. We meet a fellow named Allan Gray, ostensibly on a fishing trip in the French countryside, who stops at an inn. We learn at the beginning that Gray is interested in the occult and soon strange things happen. A man visits his room on his first night and leaves him a package, with the instructions that the package should not be opened unless the man dies. Gray then takes the package and follows ghostly shadows to a neighboring mill. A shadow of a rifleman seems to guide him to a point where the shadow then joins the corporeal rifleman who has been sitting in one place the whole time.

Gray ultimately leaves the mill and goes to a nearby manor house. Right as he arrives, the Lord of the manner drops over, as though dead. It appears that he’s killed by a gunshot from the shadowy rifleman, but that’s not all clear. He may easily have had a heart attack or a stroke or been harmed by some other supernatural force. At this point, the film takes on a more familiar vampire narrative flow, at least for a while. We learn that the lord’s older daughter, Léon has been preyed upon by a local vampire and she cannot be allowed to die, or she will turn into a vampire too. The lord’s younger daughter, Gisèle is also under threat of becoming a vampire. When the lord does succumb to the gunshot, or other injury, Gray discovers that his parcel is a book about vampires and how to deal with them. He teams up with the servants of the house to hunt the vampire.

Like Dracula, Vampyr is an early sound picture. The movie works to keep dialogue at a minimum and gives us a lot of information on narrative intertitle cards and on the pages of the vampire book. The movie also relies a lot on visual imagery to tell the story. I’ve already mentioned a little about shadows that become detached from their owners, but there are other odd elements, such as skulls that turn to face the room’s occupants and hints that we’re seeing what characters perceive rather than what they literally see. At one point, Allan himself seems to split into two spiritual forms. One form is left behind. The other form returns to the mill and finds both where the younger daughter is locked up and his own dead body in a coffin. He then becomes the dead body who is transported from the mill to the graveyard whereupon his spiritual selves reunite.

As a fan of vampire literature, one thing I love about this film is how it associates the vampires with ghosts and phantoms. The only other film I’ve seen that used is Nosferatu and even there, it’s only hinted at. I also liked the fact that the film’s “Master Vampire” appeared as an elderly woman who has men in her thrall. One of those men may also be a vampire, though it’s never entirely clear. I also love the experimental nature of this film. On Monday, I talked a little about “superhero fatigue” and really that’s a subset of seeing the same things over and over again in film. It’s nice to see a film dare to experiment with images and trust the audience to interpret what it’s seeing. And that’s what makes this film special. I’ve given it an interpretation, but you may see some elements differently depending on whether you take them literally or symbolically.

If you’re a vampire fan, it’s definitely worth checking out Vampyr. Of course, you can check out my vampire fiction by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order

Superheroes

This past weekend I saw Deadpool 2 with my daughter. I enjoyed the film and particularly its theme of seeking out love and family in the wake of violence and chaos. It’s funny with a lot of self-aware, and sometimes inappropriate, humor. It also left me pondering Hollywood’s current obsession with superheroes. I sometimes feel like I suffer something I call “superhero fatigue.” Sort of a groan that escapes involuntarily when I see another new superhero film announced. Yet, I do go back to some that particularly grab my eye. Films like Logan, Wonder Woman, and Deadpool have engaged me in spite of my fatigue.

I loved superheroes as a kid, both from comic books and on television. I probably discovered them on television first through such shows as Filmation’s Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure and the famous Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Discovering my friends from TV in comic book form no doubt helped me improve my reading. Because of when my birthday fell, I was only four when I started Kindergarten. I was younger than most of my classmates and smaller. My size probably wasn’t helped by my mom smoking while she was pregnant with me. As such, I have the familiar story of being the small kid picked on relentlessly by his classmates. I know I loved superheroes because I loved to imagine myself having super powers and impressing the other kids in class. Of course, super powers would also have given me the ability to beat up the worst of the bullies.

As an adult and a writer, I see superheroes in a different light. I’ve come to recognize that all good superheroes have limits or weaknesses and the best stories are when the villain pushes past those limits and weaknesses. All the best superheroes have people they love and they can be hurt when the people around them are hurt. That’s how Deadpool 2 starts.

As an adult, there are still dangerous forces I sometimes feel powerless to stop, such as climate change, poverty, and overblown man-children with nuclear arms who like to taunt each other through social media. Because of that, there’s still appeal in wondering whether I could do something about them if I had superpowers. Yet, it’s often the more mundane, day-to-day challenges that cause the most anxiety. Will my daughter be safe at school? How can I afford that bill I forgot about? Where did that bad Amazon review come from? Did they even read the book I wrote? Even if I had superpowers, those things probably wouldn’t change. I have to work through my limitations to find solutions to those things. I have to teach my daughter to be aware of possible dangers and avoid them when possible. I maybe have to sacrifice something for that bill, or reevaluate my finances. I should be brave like a superhero and look at that review and see whether or not there’s something I can learn from it.

The closest thing I’ve ever written to superhero fiction is Vampires of the Scarlet Order about a team of vampire mercenaries who must save humanity from itself. Can vampires be superheroes? Just ask Marvel’s Blade, who was brilliantly portrayed a few years ago by Wesley Snipes. As it turns out, I first learned about Blade when Neal Asher compared my book to Marvel’s movie and comic book series. My vampires have great power. They can move fast and have great strength. They’re hunters, but they have limits. Among other things, they can only work at night and they can be destroyed. As with the heroes in Deadpool 2, they also find family in unexpected places. If you care to see my take on superheroes, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html to learn more.

Pterodactyls, Mummies, and Magic

I’m beginning to think the French are particularly adept at making steampunk films. I enjoyed 2013’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart which had lovely animation and used steampunk images and metaphors to tell a tale of falling in and out of love that included among other things a loving tribute to Georges Méliès. Last week, I discussed the 2015 animated film April and the Extraordinary World drawn in the style of cartoonist Jacques Tardi. This week, I take a look at a film that precedes both of these, 2010’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which is based on Jacques Tardi’s comic book series of the same name.

The film is directed by Luc Besson, probably best known in America as the director of The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis. Adèle Blanc-Sec is a writer and adventurer living in 1912 who, as the movie opens, has traveled to Egypt to look for the mummy of the physician of Ramses II. Meanwhile, back in Paris, a professor uses mental powers to resurrect a pterodactyl at the French Museum of Natural History. The pterodactyl breaks free and manages to kill a high ranking French official. Like in The Fifth Element, many disparate characters and situations eventually come together, sometimes with humorous results. Sometimes tragedy ensues. In the end, I felt like I had been treated to a good and satisfying yarn.

As it turns out, the original comic series goes all the way back to 1976 and predates the K.W. Jeeter’s 1987 letter to Locus magazine where he gives Victorian fantasies the name “steampunk.” Even so, the adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec have all the hallmarks of good gonzo, historical fiction. We see a 1912—and even glimpse an ancient Egypt—where technology is so advanced for some, that it’s indistinguishable from magic. We see a pterodactyl brought back to life. For reasons that become clear over the movie’s course, we discover that Adèle wants to bring a mummy back to life. I have no problem calling this movie set just before World War I, steampunk.

Steampunk literature has brought us some strong female protagonists. Among them are Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Briar Wilkes of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and Agatha Heterodyne of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d like to think that Fatemeh Karimi and Larissa Seaton of my Clockwork Legion novels could also stand by their sisters. There’s no question that Adèle Blanc-Sec qualifies. In fact, one thing that impressed me about the movie was Adèle’s lack of interest in romance. There’s a young scientist who is enamored with her, but she doesn’t share his infatuation. Her character isn’t defined by any kind of a romantic interest. Like many good action heroes, her character is defined by the object of her quest.

If you’re looking for a good steampunk romp, it’s hard to go wrong with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. In its way, it’s very much an heir to Jules Verne’s own extraordinary adventures. Perhaps being a countryman of Jules Verne or Georges Méliès helps when you set out to make a steampunk film. I think Hollywood could do worse than pay attention to France’s successes in this area.

If you enjoy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and would like more rollicking tales featuring strong women, be sure to check out my Clockwork Legion Series.

April and the Extraordinary World

A few weeks ago, my friend William J. Jackson posted a review of the movie April and the Extraordinary World on his blog. William is the author such novels as An Unsubstantiated Chamber and Cerulean Rust. Be sure to check out his blog and his books at the links above. When a steampunk writer of William’s caliber recommends a steampunk movie I haven’t heard of, I take note.

April and the Extraordinary World is a Belgian-Canadian-French co-production based on the visual style of Jacques Tardi, who is probably best known for the early steampunk graphic novel series The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which was adapted into a live action movie in 2010. April and the Extraordinary World came out in 2015 and starts by imagining a scientist named Gustave Franklin who has been creating super soldiers for Napoleon III. When the emperor comes to visit, there’s an accident and the two most promising super soldiers escape—a pair of hyper-intelligent Komodo dragons named Rodrigue and Chimène. If that last sentence alone doesn’t make you want to watch this film, I’m not sure what will!

We then jump ahead many years to a future where Napoleon IV rules France. Many scientists such as Einstein and Fermi have just vanished and the governments of the world are secreting away what scientists they can. Gustave’s son and grandson are working on a formula to regenerate the cells of animals to heal any injury and possibly extend life indefinitely. They come to the attention of those who are making scientists disappear and pass the formula on to their daughter, the April of the title, just before they disappear.

We now skip ahead a few more years to a point where April is a young adult and a scientist in her own right. The police are trying to round up any scientists they can get their hands on to work for the government. Meanwhile other mysterious forces have discovered that April has continued work on her parents’ formula. She finds she must get to the bottom of this conspiracy of vanishing scientists in order to learn the fate of her parents.

Even though we’re now in the world of the 1940s, everything is still steam powered. The streets are clogged with smoke and dirty. Gas masks are the province of the elite. This alternate 1941 Paris is a beautifully rendered, if frightening steampunk world. The artwork not only takes inspiration from Jacques Tardi, but from Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki.

One minor issue I had with the film was that early on, it makes a point of telling the audience “this is alternate history” and “this is how we’ve changed the world from the one you know.” The best speculative fiction works by just introducing you to the world and showing it to you in such a way that you suspend your disbelief. That said, this straightforward approach may make this a good film for introducing those who don’t understand steampunk to steampunk.

My one other minor issue is that for a plot so embroiled in the work of scientists, some of the technology seemed almost magical in its amazing abilities. This magical element is part of what reminds me of Miyazaki and its beautifully rendered, but I might have enjoyed the film just a little more if some of the inventions we saw seemed just a little more plausible.

Those minor nitpicks aside, I highly recommend the film. It’s one of those I rented on Netflix, then immediately decided I needed a copy and was delighted to find one at my local Barnes and Noble. It was in the anime section, appropriately next to Miyazaki’s films!

I liked the fact that this was very much alternate history that asked what if the level of science and technology had changed. I liked that April was a strong woman—and not necessarily in the butt-kicking way. She was smart and solved problems with her brain, yet was a well-rounded character who had believable feelings about the people around her. In tone, it accomplished much of what I also shoot for in my Clockwork Legion novels. You can learn more about them at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

March Madness

No, this isn’t a post about basketball. It’s more a look back at the first two weeks of the month, which have felt more than a little crazy and hectic. I spent the first weekend of the month at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios, which was, as always, a great experience. Panels went well and we sold a lot of books. I then went home for a day, unpacked from the convention, and repacked for the Tucson Festival of Books and a shift at Kitt Peak. I spent the next three days at Kitt Peak, then went down to the Tucson Festival of Books where I had more awesome panels, albeit fewer book sales, returned to Kitt Peak for a night and a half of work, then finally returned home.

Since returning home, I’ve been proofreading some projects that I’ll talk about in more detail in the coming weeks, restocking books for El Paso Comic Con, and doing a little work around the house. One nice thing about how my schedule has worked out this month is that I’m off work for the week of my daughter’s spring break. So, we’ll be taking a short trip to spend a little time together, see some sights, and visit friends around New Mexico.

Juggling all these events, projects, and even my two careers in the last two weeks has certainly brought to mind the aphorism “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” I don’t know how lamb-like the end of the month will be, but I hope it’ll be a little quieter than the beginning. Of course, all these projects also make me feel “mad as a March hare” at times.

In keeping with the season, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon this week. In the movie, Toshiro Mifune turns in a delightfully manic performance which reminded me more than a little of his work in Seven Samurai. It was also a delight to see Takashi Shimura, who would also go on to play in both Seven Samurai and Godzilla. My reason for watching the film is that my friend Eric Schumacher was recently in a film called Tombstone Rashomon which tells the story of the gunfight of O.K. Corral from the eyes of several witnesses, much like the original Rashomon. Eric played Doc Holliday. A picture of him in the role on my wall has been serving as an inspiration for the Doc Holliday scenes in my forthcoming novel Owl Riders.

Although Owl Riders isn’t yet available, the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea is set to release on the first day of spring, March 21. You can get a sneak peak and preorder the ebook today at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/