For a lot of sci-fi fans, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element is bonafide cult-classic, a crazy sci-fi/action vision born in the mind of French filmmaker, Luc Besson (Leon, Lucy, La Femme Nikita). As it turns out, though, Fifth Element wasn't the first sci-fi project Besson wanted to get on the movie screen - that honor belongs to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and adaptation of the French comic series that started back in the '70s.
Unfortunately, Valerian (with its otherworldly settings and abundance of alien creature characters) remained out of the grasp of Besson's filmmaking technology - that is, until he saw James Cameron's Avatar, and realized that the door for a Valerian movie had sprung wide open.
While at New York Comic-Con, we got to see a new batch of footage from Valerian, basically a cluster of scenes meant to introduce us to stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, as well as the fantastical world and creatures envisioned by comic creators Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin. And from what we saw, fans of The Fifth Element have reason to be excited.
The first scene involved DeHaan's character, Valerian, standing on a space station talking with Delevingne's character, Laureline, via coms. Valerian is looking for a route to some objective, and he’s told the shortest route is through the dead-end wall he's standing by. Before we can see what happens next, we cut to another scene of Delevingne, also on a space station, being escorted by guards. She informs them that they should cuff her, since she's thinking of escaping, but as soon as they try, we witness Laureline's formidability as she beats down both guards in a nicely choreographed action sequence.
Other scenes previewed included Valerian visiting a futuristic marketplace that looks as eccentric and colorful as you'd expect from a Luc Besson movie. That sequence featured Ethan Hawke as a sleazy character Besson calls "Pimp Jolie." He runs an establishment that offers clients "gastropods," which can take the shape of anything the client wants. Besson was tight-lipped about particularly big celebrity cameo that's included in this sequence, and whether he may be using an iconic face for to undercut the audience with some sci-fi craziness.
The two biggest sequences we saw involved Valerian and Laureline on a wasteland planet retrieving an important MacGuffin alongside a squad of guys who look like The Ravagers from Guardians of the Galaxy. They're pursued by a large creature that looks like mix between a bulldog and a desert lizard; it tears apart the hover-transport that Valerian and Co. are on, taking out all "The Ravagers" until Valerian and Laureline make a classic slo-mo dive off the transport onto their spaceship, which Valerian has called in remotely.
The final sequence cut back to the start of the footage reel with Valerian following Laureline's orders on coms, and being told he has to go through the wall to get to his destination. This time we got to see the sequence play out, as Valerian presses a button on his spacesuit, extending a helmet and some bionic armor points over his body, before taking off running. He runs through the wall, and what we get is an impressive sequence as Valerian continues smashing his way through walls, with each new one revealing an new room with an even more imaginative visual design. There's the station robotics station, an aquatic room, and most surreal of all is a room filled with what looks like luminescent produce growing so thick that Valerian is almost snared in it, trying to push out like being caught inside the mouth of a giant.
Both of the major action sequences were pretty impressive, visually. Even unfinished, the combined work of Weta and Industrial Light and Magic is pretty stunning. But more than the spectacle was the tone: Valerian is most Fifth Element-y sci-fi movie we've seen since The Fifth Element. Its humor was offbeat but fun, it's visual design as imaginative and unique as it is weird, with a mix of cultural and artistic influences synthesized into something that is uniquely Luc Besson's. For the French comic book fan, there is a definite reverence for the work of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Méziéres' Valérian and Laureline comic series, which Besson identified as the thing that captured his imagination as a child:
"I watched the comic books since I'm ten years old. And at the time, it's two pages every Wednesday in a magazine - that's how I discover it. So you basically have to wait six months to read the entire album, and that's it. That's the only thing. In France at the time two television stations - one in black in white, one in color - and the only way escape when you were between ten and twelve is through these types of comics. So I was in love it; probably the first woman I fall in love with, Laureline, when I was ten."
In terms of scope and visual effects, few films have set a precedent quite like Valerian has. Besides bringing together to top-notch visual effects houses in Weta and ILM (for what Besson refers to as a 'healthy competition' of one-up-manship), the film has a crazy amount of special effects shots. For comparison: Fifth Element (which Besson cited as one of the last sci-fi films with mostly practical effects) had 188 visual effects shots; Valerian, on the other hand, has 2,734. But the work going into the film definitely shows, even at this early stage. In a year where Valerian will be released just months before a little sci-fi tentpole called Star Wars: Episode VIII hits theaters, Besson's film will no doubt be able to make its own impression.
The first Valerian teaser will supposedly arrive with the holiday season movie rush; the first trailer in the first quarter of 2017. The film itself will be released on July 21, 2017.