Joe McGovern
April 21, 2017 AT 10:30 AM EDT

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As space cops solving an intergalactic mystery, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are the headliners of this summer’s neon sci-fi extravaganza Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy, The Professional). But the film’s biggest star — quite literally — is right there in its title: the bulbous and beautiful City of a Thousand Planets, named Alpha, which in the world of the movie, sparked into creation in 1975.

“That was when the U.S. and Russian spacecrafts first docked together,” Besson tells EW with a gleeful smile. “We see that in the opening credits of Valerian. Then we see the International Space Station today, and it’s getting bigger in 2100 and 2200, all the way up to the 28th century.” The movie, based on the graphic novel series first published 50 years ago by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, is set in the year 2740.

Daniel Smith/STX

The “thousand planets” of the title are not literal celestial bodies but instead refer to all the extraterrestrials that have linked up with Alpha. Those include human affiliates in the west, robots in the east, Gasland (for methane-partial aliens) in the north, and Aqualand (for marine Martians) in the south.

“For this shot,” Besson says, “I almost didn’t change anything.” Indeed, here’s a glance at the concept art (designed by by Singaporean artist Feng Szu) followed by the finished product from Valerian‘s trailer — and you can see that Besson was obviously happy with

STX Entertainment
STX Entertainment

This shot depicts a neighborhood on the way to Gasland. The tall cylindrical buildings, shown here in the concept art are offices and residences of a neighborhood on the way to Gasland. The large blue-silver bubbles are air locks filled with various atmospheric makeups for the different species.

The director enlisted multiple graphic artists (a symbolic consortium from places such as Singapore, France, and the U.S.) to jump down rabbit holes and funnel him concepts for Alpha. “They were all insane and I loved them,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes I’d see their ideas and I’d want to call the police to say, ‘Um, keep an eye on that guy.’”

Besson also explains, “I was seeing their progress with the concepts for a whole year. It was a long process but that’s the only way to get true creativity. And at some point during the year there was always a moment when each of the guys would lose their mojo a little bit. So on Skype I was showing drawing of the other’s work to each guy.”

Concept designer Ben Mauro (The Hobbit trilogy), who’s worked on Valerian for eight years, says, “The experience I’ve had with Luc has been hands down the best.” Of Alpha, Mauro remarks, “There’s nothing on Earth that looks like this. It’s cohesive but all meshed together, and Luc always preferred the most fascinating and most cool.” And the most square footage. Alpha, according to Besson, is approximately 18 miles from end to end, but Mauro adds, “Actually, it’s as big as Luc wants it to be.”

Never contradict the boss — whether he be director or president — about his real estate claims.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens nationwide on July 21. Check back here for many more details.

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