[WARNING: This article contains minor SPOILERS for Valerian.]
If a director is lucky enough, they may become known as a cult favorite in just one genre. But if you’re Luc Besson, you’re known for not just some of the most groundbreaking, street-level, kinetic hand-to-hand combat films to come out since the 1970s, but sci-fi cult hits like The Fifth Element. But now that filmmaking technology has reached a new pinnacle, the time has come for the French filmmaker to adapt the comic book that he’s been in love with since childhood: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
We had hopes of seeing more than a still image or two when Besson brought Valerian to San Diego Comic-Con, and boy, did they deliver. Along with a smattering of concept images of Alpha Station – the space-based “city” where most of the movie is set – came seven minutes of the film, assembled from a handful of different scenes throughout the movie with temporary effects.
The footage wasn’t spoiler-filled in any sense, merely focusing on a few action beats, setting the stage of Alpha Station, and a bonus just for the Con attendees. If you hope to remain unspoiled in any sense, then stop reading. But for a breakdown of the footage, the visual influences, and the reason why Valerian just shot to the top of our most anticipated lists, read on…
Valerian Gets Cornered
The footage began following Valerian himself (Dane DeHaan) as he ran through an unknown complex – fully outfitted in the armor shown in marketing materials, and communicating with Laureline (Cara Delvingne) to help guide him through hallway after hallway. Requesting the “shortest route” to his objective, Laureline gives him a heading… directly into a wall. Voicing that fact to his partner, Laureline fires back to lighten the mood that he did ask for the shortest route.
The scene ends there – but is returned to for its big finish (more on that later). The sets themselves aren’t particularly of note, just standard ‘space hallways.’ It’s the armor that will stand out the most, since DeHaan is able to move freely inside of it, despite its size. It’s this armor which fans of science fiction immediately compared to those of the video game series Mass Effect – and believe us, the floating space station populated with hundreds of alien species, and the action-packed forays onto alien worlds are just the beginning of the comparison.
From there, the action cuts to the voice on the other end of the line – Laureline – being escorted down a hallway followed by two armed guards. She, too, sporting her full armor (pictured above) and strutting with a confidence (and shot at a low angle) that almost guarantees it’s a shot fans will see multiple times in the trailers for the movie. But after just a few steps, Laureline catches sight of a familiar clutch of aliens – The Shingouz – walking through a hallway up ahead.
Taking her opportunity, she reminds the guards that she wasn’t restrained by either of them. When they pull out the cuffs, she strikes, taking both of them down in some classic Besson combinations. With the two of them taken out, she tracks down the three aliens seen earlier, and tells them she’s in need of information.
As Besson informed us in the panel, the three are the same trio seen in the comics: three aliens who, collectively, know everything about everything. But each only knows one part – the beginning, the middle, or the end – guaranteeing that they’ll never be harmed by those seeking the information (kill one, and all the wisdom is lost). We don’t know what Laureline is inquiring about, but… that’s likely the story of the film.
The next scene begins with Valerian and Laureline aboard their spaceship, with the former handling the piloting duties while the former talks ‘tough.’ A little threat to let the ship crash into the incoming planet’s surface is all it takes for Valerian to crack, however, and the two make a high-speed dive towards a group of strangely-attired gunmen on a desert landscape (think Fifth Element for these characters more than any other in the footage).
But when the hatch lowers, it isn’t the same pair that comes galloping out, clad in their jet black armor suits, but a pair resembling – in the words of the gunmen (apparently their allies on this particular mission) – “tourists.” We don’t know what they’re after, but this planet seems most likely to be the other location mentioned by Besson, an alien world that’s home to the largest market in the universe (at over a million different shops or sellers).
Valerian Meets Rihanna
The next scene seems to be set before the desert sequences, following Valerian as he strolls somewhat mystified through a neon-filled alien ‘pleasure district.’ Well, we’re assuming that’s what’s being shown, judging by the scantily clad women passing, or tempting him to join them on their old-fashioned swings. The setting is along the lines of ‘Knowhere’ from Guardians of the Galaxy or the permanently-dark slums of Blade Runner. Before long, he notices a nearby nightclub, and winds up being slammed into a chair in front of an empty stage.
He sits stunned as an unseen woman strolls out onto the stage (backlit, so impossibly to make out anything but her silhouette), planting a chair of her own. Again, it’s a scene right out of Flashdance as her silhouette straddles the chair, gaining the attention of Valerian. The shot then goes in for a closeup on the back of her head, as she turns her face and reveals herself – the mystery character being played by Rihanna – a role that DeHaan told those in attendance is up to some insane things in the movie (that he wouldn’t dare spoil).
The footage then jumped back to the desert planet, with Valerian and Laureline getting ambushed by a ravenous, hulking, four-legged alien beast. As the pair fall back behind cover and onto a very-Earth-minibus-looking-vehicle, and the gunmen seen earlier attempt to hold off the monster. ‘Attempt’ being the operative word. As one gives the heads-up on the approaching creature, another fires off a quick fist-pumping command of sorts, which allows him to take over control (psychically?) of a turret perched on top of the wall between the team and the beast. Strangely, it isn’t a robot of any kind that he takes very remotely, but what appears to be a bipedal alien actually manning the turret.
But before there’s any real time to wonder what that link is all about, the operator leaps onto the escaping bus as the critter smashes clean through the wall, and into immediate pursuit. The action sequence shifts to the bus once the man-eating thing launches itself on top, and Valerian and Laureline call in their spaceship to rescue the passengers from the increasingly-mangled vehicle. Avoiding the teeth and the swiping claws by inches, the duo make the leap onto their ship in mid air, and head into space (with an unknown piece of machinery in their hand…).
Walls Can’t Stop Me
Finally we return to the opening scene, with Valerian standing facing a solid wall, and Laureline once again giving him some attitude over his earpiece. But this time, it’s reminding him that “it’s Comic Con.” With that, he takes a deep breath, triggers his suit’s helmet to form up from the base of his neck, encapsulating his head with a clear faceplate, and takes off at a run into the wall.
What follows doesn’t just blur the line between film and a big-budget cinematic video game trailer, but is almost guaranteed to conclude the film’s actual trailer, whenever it releases. The camera follows from directly behind Valerian (or, more accurately, his CG double) as he sets off at a run, smashing through the wall and into a artificially sun-drenched growing facility, followed by wall, after wall, and environment after environment, using a charged hand weapon to skip from energy blast to energy blast across a massive expanse, until the screen cuts to black, and the title.
It’s a fantastic payoff, and each scene seems to contain not just some sci-fi visuals, but the offbeat attitude and attention to detail that Besson used to perfection in The Fifth Element (along with its signature sense of humor). Not only that, but DeHaan and Delevingne seem to have channeled their natural screen presence into truly establishing the pair’s working relationship by the time the film introduces them. This mission may just be another day at the office for Valerian and Laureline, but it really does bring the sense of spectacle, space, cramped alien environments and action that fans have been hoping for from a Mass Effect motion picture.
In the meantime, it looks like Valerian could – could – be the movie that several fan bases have been hoping for – from Besson, specifically, or for the industry as whole.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will release on July 21, 2017.