By Piya Sinha-Roy and Rollo Ross

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Reuters) - French director Luc Besson lifted the lid on his sci-fi space epic "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" at Comic-Con, showing fans the first footage from the ambitious project following two space travelers in the 28th century.

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," based on the French comic book of the same name, follows government operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) as they embark on a mission to Alpha, an expansive, sprawling metropolis.

Fans at a Thursday panel during San Diego's Comic-Con pop culture event saw about six minutes of early footage that showed the banter between the two leads and tense action sequences as they're chased through a desert realm by a bulbous creature.

Besson debuted the first look at "Valerian" exactly one year before it is due for release in theaters, bringing along his producer wife Virginie Besson-Silla and the lead cast.

It is an ambitious project, made for around $150 million, for Besson, who is known for sci-fi films such as "The Fifth Element." Besson's company Europacorp is also behind the Scarlett Johansson sci-fi hit "Lucy" and the "Taken" action thriller franchise.

"'The Fifth Element' is now 20 years ago and the special effects at the time were not very good but the new technology now with 'Avatar' (is) pushing all the limits," Besson told Reuters.

At the panel, Besson-Silla showed the audience concept art that details the intricacies of Alpha, which has become a planet through centuries of building layers with more than a dozen alien and humanoid creatures that have evolved from it.

"Apart from the fact that 'Star Wars' based a lot of its ideas on this, it's completely new and I don't think anyone has seen anything like this before," Delevigne said.

British actress Delevigne, 23, may be better known as a supermodel, but she is carving out a career in Hollywood playing feisty characters.

Besson said he auditioned Delevigne numerous times to see if she had the acting chops to play Laureline, comparing her to when he discovered an 11-year-old Natalie Portman to star in his 1994 film "Leon: The Professional."

"Cara, she's not a model, she's an actress who became a model but she's been an actress since she was born," he said.

     

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Nick Zieminski)