Luc Besson offers an early sneak peek at his sci-fi epic 'Valerian'

In a gathering away from the din of Comic-Con, Luc Besson offered a sneak peek at his sci-fi film 'Valerian'

Typically when filmmakers come to Comic-Con to tout their upcoming big-budget spectacles, they do it with maximum fanfare in front of the biggest crowd possible in Hall H. But Luc Besson -- the director of such films as "The Professional" and "Lucy" -- isn’t ready to unveil his new project, the sci-fi epic “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” to the masses in such a splashy way.

So instead Besson flew in from Paris to offer a handful of journalists an early glimpse of the film in a small gathering in a private room at a San Diego restaurant, away from the din of the convention. "I want to share it," Besson said -- just not with everyone. At least not yet.

Adapted from a long-running French comic-book series about two interstellar secret agents, "Valerian" -- set for release in July 2017 -- marks the 56-year-old director’s return to the space-opera genre for the first time since 1997’s “The Fifth Element.” It’s clearly a passion project for Besson, who grew up on the comics. But, with a budget of $180 million, it’s also a bold gamble on a property that is not well known outside of Europe. 

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“This is the adventure of my life,” Besson said, dressed in a T-shirt bearing an image of the two main characters, Valerian and Lorelei, from the original comics. 

Set in the 26th century and starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavigne, the film, as Besson described it, is a kind of interstellar “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” -- part espionage adventure, part love story. The plot centers on some sort of battle between good and evil, but Besson, for now, wants to keep the details vague. 

“We’re going to discover only at the end what’s going on,” he said. “The villain is not the one we think, and the good people are not the ones we think.”

The action in "Valerian" takes place largely on a vast space station called Alpha, 12 miles in diameter and home to millions of beings from across the universe.

“There are 8,000 different species on Alpha,” Besson said, flipping through a stack of elaborately detailed concept art depicting spaceships, planets and bizarre-looking life forms -- a trio of squat intergalactic translators with long trunks, an alien princess whose skin changes color like an octopus depending on her mood, an underwater leviathan. 

“There are basically five living actors in the film -- that’s it,” he said. “All the rest are creatures.”

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Besson wanted to adapt “Valerian” to the screen for decades but had to wait for CGI technology to develop to the point where it could meet the film’s formidable world-building demands. He was finally ready to make it five years ago, but when he saw James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar,” he stopped in his tracks.

“I went home and threw the script in the garbage and I started again,” he said. “It was not good enough.” 

Besson plans to start shooting "Valerian" in early 2016 -- which means he’ll be back at Comic-Con next year, this time most likely teasing some footage in a far bigger venue.

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With decades of stories from the original comics to draw on, if "Valerian" proves successful, it could tee up a potential franchise. But Besson isn't getting ahead of himself. “I’m doing one and if I’m not dead after that, we’ll see,” he said.

Needless to say, there are obvious risks in trying to mount an expensive, ambitious sci-fi tentpole based on a comic that is best known in France. As the Wachowskis found out earlier this year with “Jupiter Ascending,” audiences don’t always show up en masse for an interstellar journey into the unknown.

But Besson -- whose independent studio, Europacorp, is financing "Valerian" with several international partners -- shrugged off the risks.

“If I don’t want to have risk, I can go work at the post office,” he said. “I started making films at 19 years old. Risk is part of the thing.”

Twitter: @joshrottenberg 

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