Hot diggity damn, we might be in for a real treat with Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets. With his latest sci-fi action epic, Luc Besson adapts the comic series Valérian and Laureline. An intergalactic adventure, Valerian stars Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne as the titular planet-hopping duo, a pair of ace space travelers with a worn-in partnership and chutzpah to spare.
Today at the Hall H Comic-Con panel, Besson joined DeHaan and Delevingne along with producer Virginie Besson-silla to give fans a first look at the stunning sci-fi. And what a look it was, with dazzling imagery and seemingly unyielding creativity.
That force of creativity may be because Valerian is, above all, a passion project born of the directors love for the long-running French comic book series. Besson fell in love with the comic books as a child, and long-hoped to turn that love into a feature film, but found obstacles at every turn. Valerian wasn’t technologically possible for a long time thanks to the mind-bending astral settings and a cast made up of 90% aliens and 10% humans, “But I bought the rights just in case,” Besson said with a wry smile.
Besson’s passion for Valerian led him to recruit the series original artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, to collaborate on The Fifth Element. Mézières started to say Besson should adapt Valerian into a proper film, and while the technology wasn’t ready, the director started in on a script…until Avatar came along, at which point he trashed the whole thing and started again from the ground up.
“With [James] Cameron, I find myself referring to Usain Bolt,” said Besson. “I know he’s going to win, but you’re going to be scared of me, you are going to feel my breath on your fucking back, and you’d better come with a good run. I’m going to lose with honor.”
Now, Besson is five weeks out of filming and just beginning post-production on the wildly ambitious $180 Million sci-fi spectacle, and along with about seven minutes of footage, he brought countless images of concept art and creature design. It all points to breathtaking world-building. Perhaps best epitomized in the setting of The City of a Thousand Planets, better known as Alpha, where 2/3 of the film’s action takes place. Home to vast and varied ecosystems (and all the diverse extraterrestrial creatures that inhabit them), Alpha has gas lands, liquid lands, and human territories, functioning like the inside of a clock where every piece moves independently.
For Valerian, Besson isn’t just world-building, he’s universe-building; designing and realizing 200 species through a mix of practical and digital effects. Though it’s the digital effects that certainly take the forefront here with a grand sum of 2700 effects shots (for comparison, The Fifth Element had 200). Along with the creatures, Besson created the worlds, spaceships, and environments in which they live — a spectacle of creativity that’s breathtaking even in the brief footage we saw.
With post-production just now beginning, those thousands of effects shots are far from completed, so the footage was largely dialogue or action-driven (with some temporary effects thrown in for good measure). We saw a scene in which Laureline beats the ever-loving crap out of a pair of security guards before stumbling upon a trio of bizarre-looking aliens. Another scene a scene where Valerian wanders into the spectacularly dodgy part of town and meets Ethan Hawke’s cheesy club owner. That scene ended with a single shot of Rihanna, seemingly about to put on a show.
“Rihanna’s part is so crazy,” said DeHaan, who worked with her for the first two weeks of the shoot, “Whenever I would tell anybody what I was doing for those first two weeks, they’re jaw was on the floor and they were so jealous. That’s all I can say.”
Another pair of scenes saw Valerian and Laureline on a sandy desert planet, dressed in “tourist” garb and ultimately in a sort of Fury Road reminiscent chase sequence, but only if Mad Max inverted it’s low-tech aesthetic for space-age gadgetry, including a sort of VR-type headpiece that controls drone assault weapons. It was all impressive, even with the temp effects, and it all felt like an expanded, extreme sibling to The Fifth Element.
Then came the big show-stopper. Valerian is asking Laureline for directions and she leads him right into a wall. “You said the quickest way,” she retorts before Valerian blasts through the blockade into an entirely new setting, then another wall and another environment, then the next, and the next. It’s impossible to do justice here, but it’s the kind of incredible set piece that proves Besson made the right decision in waiting for technology to catch up with his vision. It’s the kind of set piece that sent the entire hall into a standing ovation that lasted a good, solid minute. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of set piece we’re going to have to wait quite a while to see since Valerian hits doesn’t hit theaters until exactly one year from today.
Watch our very own Steve Weintraub and Perri Nemiroff react to the footage in the video below: