Unlike Aaron’s experience in his Opening Statement to The Fifth Element, I saw the movie in theaters when it was released in 1997 and I was in eighth grade. Seeing the movie in my formative years was appropriate, especially since Luc Besson originally started work on the script for what would become the movie when he himself was only 15. Taking in the futuristic candy-colored cityscapes and imaginative menagerie of aliens was all my brain could handle for quite some time after—I was a budding science fiction writer and seeing all this was not unlike the first time seeing Star Wars. I wrote story after story of not-so-subtle rip offs of the film for months after.
This is, I imagine, a similar approach Luc Besson took when he wrote the original script. Unlike myself, however, Besson was more influenced by Golden Age science fiction and French comic books. In particular, there had been little in film up to that point that presaged exactly what he set out to accomplish in The Fifth Element; that is, a live action comic book.
Its no wonder Besson has adapted the Valerian and Laureline comics as his latest movie. The story behind the development of The Fifth Element goes that he’d written a script that ballooned to around 500 pages. At some point he read one of the installments of Valerian, and, impressed with a character who drove cabs, turned Korban from rocketship mechanic to flying cab driver. The rest was history.
Comic book movies weren’t a brand new thing in 1997. Serials with comic book characters like Captain Marvel [not to mention Batman and Superman] were popular from the beginning of sound film history. Superman showed the world a man could fly and Batman had gone from the two-stepping Adam West to the Prince-dancing Michael Keaton. Stylish comic book movies weren’t even terribly new—Dick Tracy hadn’t made much of an impact, but Tim Burton’s films were nothing if not exercises in his own comic book vision.
Along with Valerian creator Jean-Claude Mézière, the artist Moebieus [Jean Giraud] contributed production design to the film. Moebieus/Giraud was an illustrator whose books Blueberry, the Jodorowsky-penned L’Incal, and his contributions to Heavy Metal known as Arzach had established himself as an iconoclast artist. He had previously worked with Marvel comics on a Silver Surfer run [referenced, amusingly, in a debate between characters in a Quentin Tarantino-written portion of the Tony Scott submarine thriller, Crimson Tide]. The blend between Mézière and Moebieus’s contributions may be difficult to discern, but in looking at the movie as a galactic-themed cinematic comic book, the film has a through line that directly connects with both artists’ work.
Besson’s filmography had always been built on pulp characters [Nikita and Leon] and stylized cinema [The Big Blue and Subway]. While The Fifth Element isn’t a direct adaptation of any particular comic book, its heritage is rooted firmly in pulpy, golden age sci-fi and comics. Much has been made of the disparate sources of inspiration for the movie, but a direct connection with modern tent pole comic book films and The Fifth Element can be made.
The contemporary comic book film is often said to have been perfected by Marvel studios these days: a dash of humor with the action hero lead who is always quick with a quip, bursts of frenetic action, and a blend of fantastic, sci-fi imagery using state-of-the-art CGI. Luc Besson had shown audiences his take on this formula well before the current spate had arrived.