LOS ANGELES — With its $180 million budget, two relatively new stars and obscure source material, Luc Besson is betting the house on the success of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
The most expensive independent film ever made, the space fantasy has been a passion project for the French director since he picked up the comic strip as a young boy.
Besson’s studio EuropaCorp posted record losses of $135 million during the last financial year, after a string of US-distributed box office flops including 9 Lives, Shut In, Miss Sloane, and The Circle.
The company is looking to establish Valerian, starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, as a blockbuster franchise and desperately needs it to be an undisputed hit to justify a sequel.
Variety magazine estimates that when marketing and other costs are figured in, Valerian will have to recoup some $400 million worldwide to make it into the black.
Mixed early reviews do not augur particularly well for the numerous investors in the project, financed entirely outside the “Big Six” Hollywood studio system.
It has an average score of 46 out of 100 with online reviews collator Metacritic, and has been dismissed by Entertainment Weekly as an “epic mess.”
The most excoriating criticism came from influential trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, which described it as “unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible and, before long, an excellent sedative.”
Besson, now 58, has dreamed of making the picture since happening upon the comic strip Valerian and Laureline, the adventures of two intergalactic “special ops” agents, when he was living in the countryside outside Paris at the age of 10.
“That was probably my only escape door to be free, to imagine, to dream. I remember that clearly,” Besson told AFP, describing how he was immediately smitten with Laureline.
“She was free, she was kicking ass, killing aliens. The first image of this woman was very strong and I was in love right away with her. She was so sexy,” he said.
The young Besson devoured all 21 volumes of the serial written by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mezieres.
He went on to make a string of classics including Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), Nikita (1990), Leon: The Professional (1994), and The Fifth Element (1997).
All the while Valerian and Laureline were at the back of his mind but Besson knew that special effects were not up to reproducing his vision of their cinematic universe, so he bided his time.
It wasn’t until James Cameron invited Besson to the set of his 2009 space epic Avatar that the director decided the technology was at last up to scratch.
“I saw Avatar and I came back home and I put my script in the garbage and started again. Because Avatar just pushes all the limits and it was just amazing, and I was not at that level,” Besson said at a recent press event in Beverly Hills.
Set in the 28th century, Valerian centers on a dark force threatening Alpha, a vast space-station which is home to species from across the universe, and the efforts of Valerian and Laureline to save it.
HUGS ON SET
The two leads are only just becoming established as big names, with 31-year-old DeHaan getting his break in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) and model-turned-actress Delevingne, 24, winning her first big starring roles in Paper Towns (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016).
But they are supported by a veteran backing cast including Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, John Goodman, and Rutger Hauer, as well as jazz legend Herbie Hancock.
There are walk-on parts for French directors Louis Letterier, Benoit Jacquot, and Olivier Megaton, while pop superstar Rihanna makes a memorable if bizarre cameo as Bubble, a shape-shifting exotic dancer who can quote Shakespeare and Moliere.
Filmed on seven soundstages at Cite du Cinema, Besson’s 26-hectare film complex in the suburbs of Paris, the six-month shoot wrapped in June last year, although the artistic planning started way back in 2010.
Huge physical sets as well as multiple spaceships, control rooms, and a flying bus were enhanced by 2,700 special effects shots — compared with just 188 in The Fifth Element — to bring Besson’s vision to life.
There are neon-colored alien worlds, space battles, flying car chases, shoot-outs with extraterrestrial underworld criminals, and plenty of narrow escapes from numerous spectacular creatures, all rendered in vibrant 3-D.
“I watched Luc every day on set having the time of his life making the film he’s wanted to make his entire life,” said DeHaan.
“He would give me the biggest hug every day I stepped on the set.” — AFP