After seeing seven insane minutes from the 2017 science-fiction epic “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” a small group of reporters were astonished by the environments, ambition and action scenes on display As writer/director Luc Besson fielded questions from an excited crowd, he smiled, saying with a wave of his hand, “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but you have seen nothing.”
That might sound like big talk, the kind of hype all too prevalent at Comic Con International in San Diego, where fans converge to hunt for the next big thing in nerd culture. But with such iconic action films under his belt as the dark yet tender “Leon: The Professional,” the Scarlet Johannson hit “Lucy” and the beautifully bold and bonkers space opera “The Fifth Element,” Besson’s hype is the kind you can believe in.
Based on the hugely influential French comics of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” stars Dane DeHaan (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) and Cara Delevingne (“Suicide Squad”) as a spatio-temporal agents, partners dedicated to keeping time travelers in line, so that paradoxes won’t shatter existence as they know it.
Set over a 24-hour period, the film will have Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) leaping through dimensions, encountering a wide array of alien creatures (“more than 200”), and butting heads as they investigate a galactic empire. But for all the incredible settings the sizzle real teased at the movie’s Hall H panel, Besson stresses this is a story about the charismatic partners above all else. “What’s important is they are space agents. They are a team,” He explained, “It’s really a ]Mr. & Mrs. Smith.’ It makes it very human, which I like. They fight. They laugh. It’s human in a world totally crazy.”
Adapting the “Valerian and Laureline” comics has been a longtime passion for the visionary filmmaker. He shared, “I honestly deeply loved the thing since I was 10 years old. I love love Valerian and Laureline. I love the couple. They were with me from 10 to 20, crossing all the time, school and things. I’m attached to them. I always dreamed of doing it.” But for decades, Besson feared the sheer scale of this space and time-traversing story was beyond the grasp of modern movie-making. “For a long time I thought it would be impossible to do. Too much aliens. Too much. It was just impossible. Then ‘Avatar’ came. And you start to think. Thanks to Jim [James Cameron], now we can do it.”
However, “Valerian” faces a unique obstacle. A seminal science-fiction work, the comics have long been a source of inspiration for such films as the “Star Wars” trilogy, which heavily referenced elements of production design, costume (including Leia’s slave outfit) and characters. So, if Besson stays true to the comics, moviegoers more aware of a galaxy far, far away might mistakenly think he’s ripping off George Lucas. However, the French filmmaker isn’t sweating that, laughing, “That would be funny. No. I tell my story. I’m a huge ‘Star Wars’ fan. Ideas are in the air. I’d rather talk about inspiration than rip-off. All the people you talk about are super fans of sci-fi. So, you know, it’s fine.”
Fun fact: Mezieres responded to “Star Wars” with a witty one-panel cartoon in “Pilote” magazine. You can see it below. Loosely translated, Leia is saying, “Fancy meeting you here,” while Laureline is slyly replying, “Oh, we’ve been hanging around for a long time!”
Besson is aiming for a run time between 2:13 and 2:15, although the current cut is at 2:10, “Because I’m hard on myself.” There’s plenty of visual effects, and scads of CG characters. But wherever possible, the product team kept real people in the mix. “Most of the aliens were played by people, almost 90 percent.” Besson revealed, “Some of them are so weird that you can’t [make it a mo-cap performance]. So you put a guy with pieces of wood (for an eyeline), that’s all you can do. I won’t change that. It’s always good to have an actor to play with. Even if the guy is in gray with dots, at least you have a human to play him. I think for Dane and Cara that was way more agreeable.”
And you better believe this big summer movie will be in 3D, although it won’t be shot in the format. Don’t worry. Yeah, there was a time not so long ago when “3D conversion” meant sloppy gimmick with visually jarring effects. But the form has come a long way, and Besson did his research before choosing to shoot in 2D, then up-convert. “The switch from 2D to 3D is so good that I don’t want to bother myself to shoot in 3D,” he began. “Because the way I’m shooting — my style — I can go from huge crane shots. But I can also take a small camera and run after an actor with the camera in one hand, going through doors. You cannot do that with a double-3D version camera, which is 70 kilos. If you shoot in real 3D, you oblige yourself to a certain way of filming that doesn’t fit with me at all. Chris [Nolan], his way of shooting fits with it. So I totally understand he liked to do it with the big camera, because he’s very elegant. I’m much more like a fox.” While this fox is famous for the spectacle and style of his films, Besson admitted those are the last elements he applies to a project: “I try to work by layers first. First characters, who they are? What is the plot? Where do I want it to go? Then one of the two or three last layers is about the color and the style. But it comes at the endIf I find something stylish or beautiful, if I can’t integrate it in a way that serves the story, I just leave it out. I need to be sure of that. What was interesting to me here, we were humans dealing with thousands of different kinds of aliens — 8,000 to be precise — and the world is pretty nice. They exchange science, art, commerce. They’re doing deals together. It’s not like, ‘Oooo, the aliens are the mean guys.’ It’s quite reflective of who we are today. We have American, and French, and Albania and Greenland. We’re all different, but the same. It’s like that, except instead of different races in the galaxy.”
Asked how “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” compares to “Fifth Element,” Besson offered a curious answer. It’s not him or his style that’s changed, it’s the world. And that’s a good thing.
“”The Fifth Element” was 20 years ago. And I was weird at the time,” he says with a smile. “So the world was kind of like, ‘What the fuck is this thing?’ I think that in 20 years, I’m still the same, and the world became much more weirder than before. So now we’ve met! I think people won’t be as surprised as 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, when the president of the universe arrives and he’s black, I remember in test screenings, a couple of white guys saying, ‘What the fuck is this film?’ They were like, ‘Whoa!’ Or having a blue singer sing opera in space, that was too weird at the time. I guess the film is more acceptable in terms of the storytelling. It’s much more agreeable. We have a guy. We have a girl, and you can easily stay with them. But the world is still totally crazy around them, that’s for sure.”
If Besson is right, and the world is finally ready for his unique brand of space opera, he’s totally game to give us all more more more. “I can do 10 [sequels] if you want,” he declared. “I’m ready.” But pressed if the cast had signed on for sequels, the playful helmer chuckled, “I hope so. I am not involved with this kind of thing, but I hope so. God. [Teasing our reporter] You scare me now!”
While Besson has been sharing a plethora of photos on Instagram from behind the scenes of the wrapped production, he’s hoping the details won’t be what really sells you on “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Even if you don’t know the comics, even if you’re not a big fan (yet) of its stars, he entreats us all: “Personally, honestly, my wish is for if you can trust me. Try to know nothing and sit down. That’s my wish. I’ve made 17 films. So watch a couple of them, and decide whether you can trust me or not.”
He concludes with a shrug, “If you can trust me enough, then just sit down with your popcorn and experience it.”
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” opens July 21, 2017.
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