Luc Besson's Valerian footage knocks out Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con

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Jul 21, 2016, 7:26 PM EDT

Every year there are always a couple of dark-horse events at Comic-Con which end up generating instant buzz, and we just saw one.

The Hall H presentation for director Luc Besson's new space opera, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, sent a jolt through what was an otherwise light day in the massive, 6,000-seat hall. Besson brought a collection of scenes -- many of them featuring temp effects -- a gallery of production art and his two stars, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. The young actors play Valerian and Laureline, two agents of the human race charged with keeping peace throughout the universe, who investigate mysterious events at a giant intergalactic city called Alpha.

The movie is based on a long-running French comic series created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières that Besson said he started reading when he was 10 years old. Moderator Josh Horowitz said that the series, which came out in 1967, has had an impact on films like Star Wars and Avatar, and based on what we saw today, it's easy to make that connection. Valerian is a massive, delirious space opera, mixing classic imagery from that genre with the kind of outlandish, eye-popping aesthetic seen in European sci-fi staples like Heavy Metal.

"I wanted to be Valerian," said Besson, making his first appearance in Hall H, "but I fell in love with Laureline." After he and his wife/producer Virginie Besson-Silla displayed a series of production drawings emphasizing a number of the more than 800 alien species who inhabit Alpha (Besson reckoned we'll see around 200 of them), the lights were lowered for what Besson said was the first showing of footage -- some of it with just temp effects -- anywhere (the movie wrapped six weeks ago and comes in eaxctly one year, on July 21, 2017).

Here's what we saw:

-- DeHaan trying to find his way out of a corridor, with Delevingne's voice in his headset directing him.

-- Delevingne being led down a corridor by two security guards, who she quickly subdues with some mean martial arts moves. She then confronts three short aliens with long snouts, who Besson described as "knowing everything about everything" and looking to charge for the information they have.

-- Valerian and Laureline land their ship, which looks a lot like the Millennium Falcon, on a desert world where they meet a team of men dressed as scavengers of some kind. The two are dressed like tourists, and when questioned about it, Valerian says they were told to blend in with the locals.

-- Valerian makes his way through a city entertainment district to a club, where he is escorted inside by Ethan Hawke to a private room. There we see him about to get some sort of private dance from a woman who turns out to be ... Rihanna!

-- The fifth scene is back on the desert world, where Valerian, Laureline and the team we met earlier are ambushed and all pile into a bus of some kind being chased a huge alien creature. The team shoots huge guns at the creature to no effect. Valerian breaks out the front window, and he and Laureline leap from the bus to their spaceship just as the creature jumps on the bus and tears it to pieces.

That led to a montage of scenes showing fleets of spaceships, armies of aliens, massive space structure and planets and flashes of immense battle sequences, before coming full circle to Valerian in that hallway. He smashes through a wall and keeps running, smashing through doors and passing through a series of bizarre landscapes both organic and futuristic.

It was all stunning stuff and got a huge response from the Hall H crowd. Besson, who introduced DeHaan and Delevingne at the dais a few minutes later, said he had wanted to make the movie for years but found it impossible because of the number of effects and aliens involved. He credited James Cameron with giving him advice that finally led him to make the picture.

The director also revealed that the movie takes place in the year 2700 and features around that same number of effects shots, as compared to the 200-odd shots he got to use in The Fifth Element almost 20 years ago.

In a word, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looked insane. We've always been admirers of The Fifth Element, another film with an outsized, spectacular imagination and quirky tone, and it seems as if Besson has returned to that style of filmmaking at last -- only on steroids.