The prospect of a new, big scale sci-fi movie from The Fifth Element director Luc Besson is exciting enough. After seeing footage and images from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con this Thursday, it seems that excitement is fully warranted. Valerian doesn't open until 21 July 2017 in the US and an Australian release date has not been announced, but Besson was on hand with stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne to show a few quick scenes from the film, and explain the world the director has dreamed of making a reality for decades.
Besson fell in love with the original comic books, Valérian and Laureline, as a child. Later in life, he met the original artist, Jean-Claude Mézières and the two collaborated on The Fifth Element. Mezieres begged Besson to adapt Valerian, but the director didn't think it was possible. With a cast made up of 10 per cent humans and 90 per cent aliens, and set on a super futuristic world called Alpha, technology wasn't ready for Valerian in 1999.
Besson felt technology was ready around 2008... but then he saw James Cameron's Avatar, and realised he wasn't ready any more. In awe of the kind of world-building he wanted to accomplish himself, he threw out the script he'd written and started again. The result is the film he finished shooting five weeks ago, but still has 10 months of post-production on.
Because most of the over 2700 visual effects shots in Valerian aren't done yet (to compare, Fifth Element only had 200), the scenes shown were mostly just practical sets and dialogue. But they were funny, light and very Luc Besson — lots of quippy jokes in a hyper-realised environment. One scene showed Laureline beating up two guards and leaving them tied in knots. Another had the pair flying their ship, which is shaped like an asterix, down to a sandy planet on a mission where they have to dress like local tourists. A third scene was set to "Staying Alive" by Wyclef Jean as Valerian is lured into a club run by a character played by Ethan Hawke, containing an exotic dancer played by Rihanna.
The fourth scene was an action set-piece that felt a little like Mad Max. On a desert planet, Valerian and Laureline are running from a massive creature and several humans pick them up in a bus to help them escape. To cover them, one of those humans uses a VR-like helmet to fire up a Gatling gun drone. The alien dodges the fire and jumps onto the bus, resulting in a huge gun battle, until Valerian summons his ship and he and Laureline jump onto it in slow motion, just out of the alien's reach.
All the scenes were cool and fun, but the best was yet to come. Describing it doesn't really do it justice, but here goes: Valerian is on a mysterious ship while Laureline is talking in his ear, telling him where to go. One of her directions runs directly into a wall. "You said the quickest way," she says. So Valerian smashes through it and into a completely new environment on the ship. In a single long take, he smashes through another wall, and another wall, and another wall, and in-between each wall is an entirely new scene — something industrial, something agricultural, a bottomless pit and so on. The shot is absolutely amazing.
Besides the footage, there was a bit of information on the world of Valerian as well. The opening credits cover several centuries of history starting with actual footage of a US space mission linking up with a Russian space station in 1975. From there, more countries join, until the entire world has a section up there. But then an alien race joins, and then more, and by the year 2300 this mass of humanity, called Alpha, has become too big to be so close to Earth, so it has to go out into the cosmos. The film takes place 400 years later... but it also takes place in a single day.
There are over 200 alien species in the film, some made by motion-capture, others with practical effects.
Valerian opens in a year, and if it lives up to the footage and scope of imagination shown in Hall H Thursday, we're in for something special.