French film director, screenwriter, and producer Luc Besson has worked in the entertainment industry for more than 30 years, creating such favorites as La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional (starring a young Natalie Portman in her very first role). But perhaps his most well-known work is 1997’s science fiction film The Fifth Element. One could also say that the film is Besson’s magnum opus, since he started writing the story at only 16 and it remains very popular to this day as a campy, visually inventive pop sci-fi classic.
Besson was first inspired to create The Fifth Element by the French comic books he grew up reading as a teenager, among them Valérian and Laureline about a man and his redheaded female colleague who travel through space and time to maintain order. This 1960s comic from writer Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières set Besson on his path within the industry, and now it’s all about to come full circle as the director will premiere a film adaptation titled Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets due out next year.
At New York Comic-Con 2016, Besson was on hand to promote Valerian and speak with the audience about how filmmaking has changed between his last sci-fi epic and now. In fact, Besson first met Valerian co-creator Mézières when the director called him up to help with The Fifth Element, and the illustrator then asked him why he wasn’t doing Valerian instead. According to Besson, the technology just wasn’t there yet:
“At the time, to be honest, you couldn’t make it. There’s, like, five or six [humans], all the rest were aliens. You really had to get to Avatar, and then think, oh, now imagination is the limit. Now we can do everything.”
This new the sky’s the limit approach available after Avatar is what Besson says is the biggest difference between The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. After seeing the world of James Cameron’s film, Besson took the original script for Valerian and threw it in the garbage, preferring to start over in many ways. Cameron later even gave the not-so-techy Besson advice on how to go about creating science fiction in this new technological, digital age. As Besson explained:
“Fifth Element was the last film done with old-fashioned special effects; if I had a green screen, I’d have to lock my camera in one place, and they’d put dots on the screen for hours. It was a nightmare. And then six hours later, digital arrived and basically, you can put your camera on your shoulder and they say, ‘Oh, we can do it later.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?'”
The old-fashioned special effects really took their toll, and Besson swore off doing hardcore science fiction movies for some time. Now it seems he’s revived with what is possible through visual effects companies like ILM, Weta, and Rodeo. Each of these companies will have a hand in the estimated 2,734 special effects shots in Valerian. From an intergalactic market on a desert planet to an international space station called Alpha, Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline will travel to various different worlds that are larger-than-life when the film premieres next summer.
Some stills from the film have already been released, and Besson has been posting behind-the-scenes pictures and video on his Instagram throughout filming. Seven minutes of unfinished footage was also unveiled at NYCC, but for our first real look at Valerian won’t come until next month when the first teaser trailer is scheduled to be released to the public. So far, buzz has been high for the film based on early previews, and there’s no reason to think that the movie won’t be the next Star Wars, Avatar, or at least the next The Fifth Element, which were all influenced by the original comic.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in U.S. theaters on July 21, 2017.