With the way Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has been advertised–”the visionary director of The Fifth Element” writ large in the film’s trailers–Luc Besson fans will be forgiven for assuming the two movies will be similar. The French filmmaker tackled sci-fi of a sort with 2014’s Lucy, but Valerian is his first full-on spacefaring adventure since The Fifth Element in 1997. But not only does Besson insist they’re unrelated–he’s also not shy about which he prefers.
“I feel as a director much more agile, you know, in the shots, and I’m more trained 20 years later,” he told GameSpot. “So I prefer the directing of Valerian.”
The Fifth Element–which has earned cult status over the last two decades following a lukewarm reception from critics at the time–was screened this weekend at Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Cinespia, the company behind the frequent always-sold-out cemetery screenings, partnered with Sony to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary and its release last week on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
“It’s such a pleasure to see that [The Fifth Element] is still alive. I think it’s the best wishes for a director. It’s better than Oscar, box office, everything, is to see that 20 years later, young people are still getting the DVD and watching it and that it’s alive,” Besson said before the screening. “There are not so many movies in the past 20 years–you know, there’s lots of sometimes big films that you forget after two years or three years. I’m so happy to see that at least I have a couple of them, with Leon still there and still around, La Femme Nikita–so it’s good. I’m a happy director.”
“You know what’s interesting?” he continued. “The people who produced the film, the French company who produced it, don’t even celebrate the 20-year anniversary. I asked them, I said, ‘Hey, what’s up, what are we gonna do?’ ‘Nothing.’ And then here, in the US, Sony’s releasing a 4K version, and we organized a big screening. So I’m so happy.”
The fact that Valerian is scheduled to hit theaters this Friday is simply fortuitous. Besson said at San Diego Comic-Con last year that he expects the new film, based on a classic series of French comics created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, to receive a warmer reception than The Fifth Element did originally.
“The funny thing is twenty years ago I was weird,” he said during a panel in the San Diego Convention Center’s famously humongous Hall H. “Some people followed [The Fifth Element] at the time and it was a good success, but not huge. And twenty years later the world got as weird as me, so now we match.”
“[The Fifth Element] was too weird, too strange, and the people at the time, the journalists, they were like, ‘This is too much,’” Besson elaborated, sitting comfortably in a trailer behind the mausoleum on which Cinespia projects the movies it screens. Milla Jovovich, who starred as the “Supreme Being” Leeloo and was preparing to surprise the screening’s guests and introduce the film along with Besson and co-star Chris Tucker, applied makeup nearby.
“They were expecting Armageddon,” Besson continued.
There’s one point the director especially likes to emphasize when discussing the differences between The Fifth Element and Valerian: The number of special effects shots each movie had, comparing the former’s 188 effects shots to Valerian’s 2,700. Valerian is, in fact, the most expensive French film ever made, although Besson attributes the real differences between the two movies more to improvements in his directing–and his personal life.
“20 years of experience,” he said. “The directing is much more fluid in Valerian, much more agile. You know, 20 years ago–I love the film, I love The Fifth Element, but the shots, I can feel that I lost weight since then, you know what I mean? I feel better with my body. At the time, I was a little chubby, and it was more difficult.” He grunted loudly to emphasize the change.
There is one spiritual through-line connecting The Fifth Element and Valerian that Besson couldn’t help but acknowledge: His vibrant, chaotic, kaleidoscope vision of the future. “It’s still a little crazy–I always see the future like colorful and funny,” he said. “Valerian is still like this, even if the storytelling is not the same at all.”
At its core, Valerian is the story of Valerian and Laureline, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne–”Starsky and Hutch in space,” as Besson described it. “Two cops have a mission and try to resolve it,” he said. “The rest is nuts, but the structure is very simple.”
And all the advances in technology over the last two decades–all the money that went into Valerian–may have served simply to make it the most Luc Besson film ever. “The technology is so big now that the limit is the imagination,” the filmmaker said, smiling, “which is very good for me, because I have a little bit of imagination.”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits theaters this Friday, July 21, and The Fifth Element is available now on 4K Ultra HD in celebration of the film’s 20th anniversary.