When Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element first hit cinemas back in 1997, it looked like nothing we’d ever seen on the screen before. We may have seen it on the page, though.
Teenage Besson, first scribbling the ideas that would be manifested in celluloid years later, was inspired by European science fiction comics by the likes of Jean “Moebius” Giraud and especially Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin, whose Valerian and Laureline series he would bring to the screen in 2017. Their works were colourful, wildly imaginative epics, unbound by such trifling considerations as “logic” and “realism”.
When Besson mounted The Fifth Element over 20 years since he started work on the project, Giraud and Mézières were on production design duties, with Jean Paul Gaultier providing costumes, in an effort to produce a sci-fi film a million aesthetic miles away from the industrial dystopias, dusty wastelands, and sterile starships of most screen SF of the time.
That concern with aesthetics should not surprise us—Besson was part of the French cinema du look movement along with Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax, and made films that privileged style over, well, anything else. Although only Besson’s first feature, 1983’s post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat, could be said to be science fiction, much of his subsequent body of work—Subway, The Big Blue, even the sleek crime thrillers La Femme Nikita and Léon, seem only lightly tethered to our grounded reality.