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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is not your typical comic book movie

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Six months in front of a blue screen

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - Valerian
Valerian
STX

A sigh. A titter.

Sitting in a nearly empty movie theater two rows behind Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets director Luc Besson and one of the upcoming film's stars, Dane DeHaan, it wasn't exactly clear which of the two made the noise. But if I had to bet, my money would be on Besson.

Delightfully optimistic and often self-effacing in interviews, moments before I heard those two exclamations I noticed Besson bouncing around in his chair to the music of the soon-to-be-released trailer for the yet-to-be-released film.

He's obviously in love with this, his latest work. The question is: will you be?

Due to the particularities of CinemaCon, the annual expo for movie theater owners, the trailer I watched, along with a scattering of journalists, DeHaan and Besson, won't be released until tomorrow morning. So I can't show it to you, but I can describe it, from the moment the theater's lights went down to that post-second-viewing reaction by, most likely, Besson.

The trailer

“This missions is a simple in and out”

The trailer opens with a hard voice over, a beat of drums, and a scene setter.

“Agent Valerian, you’ll be running solo.”

“I only work with my partner,” Valerian responds.

“Hi,” a quick shot of Laureline.

“We’re a team,” Valerian continues.

Across shots of stunning backdrops, unusual aliens and some amazing special effects, we hear the backstory from an alien voice.

“Welcome to Alpha. The city of a thousand planets. Where for hundreds of years every species has shared their knowledge and their intelligence with each other. It’s paradise.”

Then comes the perfectly fitting strains of The Beatles’ “Believe”:

“After centuries of peace and prosperity, an unknown force wants to destroy all we have created.”

That commanding voice comes back in: “Agents Valerian and Laureline, you have ten hours to find the threat and eliminate it.”

The trailer, packed with beautiful glimpses into a surreal 70s French sci-fi comic as seen through the eyes of the man behind The Fifth Element, does more than assure the audience of the film’s aesthetic. The trailer also clearly shows the underlying, perhaps more powerful story of a man and a woman, two agents who rely on one another, and the tensions and trust that exist between them.

The interview

Later, seated at an array of tables in the otherwise empty Lincoln Ristorante, attendees politely sipped coffee and tea, and ate great forkfuls of quiche as they waited for Besson or DeHaan to get around to them. Returning to my seat with a coffee, I found it occupied by DeHaan.

Squeezing in next to him, I asked if DeHaan had a chance yet to read any of the Valérian and Laureline comics which were used by Besson as source material for the movie.

Created by writer Pierre Christin and artists Jean-Claude Mézières in the 1960s as a French serial, the comics went on to have a long life in both other languages and in graphic novel formats, which are typically referred to as albums. The series wrapped up in 2010.

But it was those early years, appearing in magazines, that first captured Besson's attention as a child. Laureline, Besson once told me, was his first love. The idea of turning the comics into a movie seemed an impossibility, so he never really gave it thought until much more recently.

DeHaan, who takes on the role of Valerian in the film, wasn't really familiar with the source material until the movie deal came up. He said he hadn't read the comics before, but that he's read them since.

"I think what's cool about the comics in general is that they kind of lend themselves to infinite possibilities and worlds and all of that," he said. "I think Luc kind of took one of the comics and made a lot more out of it. He's expanded upon the comics more than like the comic itself. I think there's a lot to play with there."

DeHaan said that while Empire of a Thousand Planets, which serves loosely as the basis for the film, isn't his favorite, he'd be hard pressed to say which of the 22 albums, 14 of which have been translated into English, are.

Dane DeHaan chats at press event in New York City
Brian Crecente/Polygon

One thing that won't prevent any of the albums from being turned into a film is the ability to recreate the packed, over-the-top worlds of the source material.

Where once that was the impediment preventing Besson from tapping into the comic's lore, today that's no longer the case.

"It's reached the point that the limit of technology is imagination," Besson said, "which is good news for me because that's all I have."

The movie relies so heavily on computer graphics and green screens (they actually used blue screens) that DeHaan said watching the trailer was his first chance to see what the film was actually going to look like.

"It's almost all CG," he said. "There were some people in costume sometimes but there is so much CG that when I'm watching the trailer I'm seeing it for the first time, truly.

"We had lots of blue screen, lots of people in motion capture suits," he said. "It was all in Luc's head so, it's cool to see."

And DeHaan is no rookie to working in front of a green or blue screen. Taking on the role of Harry Osborn and later the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 required a bit of that work. But, he said, it didn't even compare.

Compared to Spider-Man there was "way, way more" blue screen work, he said.

Dane DeHaan as Valrian (left) director Luc Besson and Cara Delevingne as Laureline
Official site for film

"Like 10,000 times more than Spider-Man," DeHaan said. "I think in Spider-Man we were in front of a green screen for the last two weeks. I was in front [of a blue screen in Valerian] for like six months. Like every single day: blue screen; just having to really rely on my imagination and Luc having a really vivid imagination."

With the comic as source material and Besson as director, the movie is likely to deliver a different sort of comic book movie experience to audiences when it hits this summer.

"There is definitely a sense of humor to it," DeHaan said. "It's definitely not like dark, like a super dark superhero thing. I think Luc has a really fun sensibility and he wants to keep people entertained."

DeHaan added that what really sets this apart from other comic book-based movies is the amount of discretion Besson had in bringing his particular vision to the screen.

"What's unique about it is not just that it's French but that it's not controlled by an American studio," he said. "So making a movie like Spider-Man, it's almost like making a movie by committee. There's ten people giving their opinion at all times.

"There is something about this movie that I think true to unfiltered Luc. Like nobody is telling Luc what to do except for Luc. He has such a unique style. I don't think you would be able to achieve that within the American studio system."

Besson's particular approach to movie making, something you can clearly see in The Fifth Element, seems to come from his view of the world and his place in it.

Luc Besson speaks at a NYC event for Valerian
Brian Crecente / Polygon

"Generally," he said, "in life I don't like to take myself too seriously. If things get too serious I just crack a joke, because at the end of the day we just make movies, we're not saving lives."

He said in the case of Valerian, he views the movie as two stories, not one.

"You have the big story which is the 28th century, full of villains everywhere like a crazy story, and then you have a little story," he said. "The little story is about this guy and this girl. He desperately wants to get the girl and the girl is very old fashioned. She says, 'I will have only one man and he will be the father of my children and that is it.' It's the story of love. Is the guy going to get the girl?

"I love this little story, but I think it's the mix of the two which makes a great unit. Everyone can relate. Even if someone doesn't like something specifically about the movie at least it's funny and the second is: you like them and you want to know if they're going to end up together. It's a very, very old-fashioned story and a very eccentric hyper-space story. I like that."

He likes it so much that, DeHaan tells me, he's talking about making at least two more films if he can.

"If people like it," he said.

Later, I ask Besson if that's true. He says it is, that there are a few of the albums that stick out as potential films, but that he won't tell me which they are.

"No, because I am writing already," he said. "I like to be ready in case it works. If it doesn't you're always ready because there's nothing to prep for. But if you're lucky and people like the film you need to be ready.

"I'd love to do a second film because I love the characters. Whenever I see them I smile."