Whenever a filmmaker of note premieres a new film, it’s a good time to revisit that director’s first film to gauge how far they’ve come as an artist. With Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets currently in theaters, we take a look back at Luc Besson’s The Last Battle.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Luc Besson shared his preference for crafting cinematic worlds that are utopian, with the reportedly mind-boggling megalopolis of his forthcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets being, in his words, like the “United Nations.” Put another way, it sounds like Valerian is—at face value, anyway—completely different from Besson’s first film.
Whereas his new movie is supposed to be lavish and lovely, his debut, The Last Battle, is stripped down and savage, shot in scrappy black-and-white instead of in the effects-laden digital that brought his latest to polychromatic life. Such austerity extends to the The Last Battle’s central conceit: There is almost no dialogue in this film, with the narrative justification being that, at some point in the future, people have inexplicably lost the ability to speak. Similarly, most of the film’s soundtrack is occupied by ambient noise, and when characters do cross paths, they communicate by way of grunting, pointing or fighting, which, in the film’s eat-or-be-eaten world of scavengers prowling through civilization’s ruins in search of food and shelter, are generally sufficient for getting one’s point across.
The decision to remove dialogue has both practical and aesthetic benefits, with the former perhaps being the more obvious. Not having to account for the human voice expedites sound mixing, something a young, probably cash-strapped filmmaker like Besson (he was only 24 when the film hit theaters) would certainly have appreciated. Excising dialogue also limits the movie in a way that is productive for creativity, because, just as restrictions in meter and line count compel sonneteers to think up imaginative ways of getting their points across, so does cutting out speech from The Last Battle force Besson to find other, more unorthodox means of non-verbal, narrative exposition. What results feels a bit like code-breaking (we have to work to decipher characters’ thoughts and emotions, though the film’s relatively conventional structure and the characters’ un-complex motivations still make The Last Battle fairly easy to follow) but also like we’re watching a wildlife documentary in which the fight for survival seems, in the absence of language, totally primordial.
The association between humans and animals is not accidental. Initially, the film’s wordlessness operates like a gimmick, a formal crutch imposed just so that it can be overcome, but as the movie progresses, the loss of language comes to signify a larger loss of culture and humanity. This thematic thread enters the picture in the form of an old doctor (Jean Bouise) who, cooped up in an abandoned apartment complex, has managed to salvage aspects of civilization as we currently know it: medicine, etiquette, art. Against him the film pits a brutish wanderer (Jean Reno) who frequents the doctor’s front gate, threatening his comfortable lifestyle. Between these two opposites resides the film’s protagonist (Pierre Jolivet), who, having been injured, is taken in by the old doctor and given a taste of life beyond survival. Since the start of the movie, our hero has occupied a space between the old world order and the new non-order (he kills to get what he needs but is also technologically savvy enough to build an airplane), a position of liminality that perhaps made him the ideal student for the old man’s cultural instruction.
The film’s vision of humanity’s final vestige encroached upon by moral wilderness is not without its problems. For one thing, the The Last Battle’s unequivocal valorization of the Bouise character’s way of life over that of Reno’s vagabond smacks vaguely of classism and privilege, with “humanity” framed as conditional upon having wealth. Is the wanderer any less human for giving into baser instincts for the purposes of survival? Is the old man any more human for not needing to? It could be that the Reno character is uniquely evil rather than simply desperate—several scenes suggest as much—but if this were the case, then he wouldn’t be as great a metaphor for amorality as the film seems to want him to be.
Oddly enough, the first scene shared by the old man and the wanderer tells a completely different story. There, the doctor is a jerk and the wanderer a hardworking guy cheated out of a deal when the barrel of canned goods he wheels to the doctor’s door is snatched inside without any gift of reciprocity. A more nuanced movie could have unfolded in the vein of this scene, but Besson abruptly shifts his good graces away from the Reno character toward the old doctor partway through the film, creating all the issues mentioned above.
That said, most of these problems are simply ones of magnitude—wealth and humanity are a bit too closely equated, the Reno character a smidge too villainous. Overall, Besson offers a cogent portrait of humanity gone down the drain, beginning with the film’s very first shot, in which a pan around a ramshackle room ends on a man having sex with a blow-up doll. When the doll deflates mid-coitus, there is a slight pause in the man’s thrusting that speaks volumes: He recognizes his pathetic state but can do nothing about it. Society has become a self-serving free-for-all in which the imperative of survival all but severs the possibility of sincere human relationships. What better way to open such a film than with a sex doll, which epitomizes selfishness in the way it enables sex without intimacy or human exchange.
This depressing status quo is the reason why the doctor’s friendship with the hero is so touching. The speed and gusto with which the old man shows his new companion all his objects, amenities and hobbies testifies to the doctor’s prior loneliness, whereas the guest’s semi-dazed reaction to this enthusiastic showcase suggests disbelief at the possibility of such joy existing in a world so vile. The relationship between these two men and the profound ramifications it has for the protagonist is summed up in a brilliant shot, midway through the film, that begins on the hero, holding a sword by his side. Having already seen him kill someone in an earlier scene, we tense up, expecting violence to break out. When the shot pulls back and the old man enters the frame, mild panic sets in—we think he might kill the doctor and take over his home. But the shot keeps tracking back and we see that the doctor is actually just painting a portrait of the guy, who is the model holding the sword as his prop.
Through this progression of reveals, the film not only subverts our expectations, it has us notice this subversion, which parallels the hero’s experience of finding unexpected peace and intellectual/cultural/aesthetic productivity within an otherwise debased existence. His original view of the world as a violent and degraded place that can be symbolized by the sword has been reframed in the same way that the movement of the shot recontextualizes what we initially saw. It’s a moment of concise visual storytelling, a highlight in a movie populated with striking images.
Over the past few decades, Besson’s name has become associated with the action genre, given that his directing, writing and producing credits collectively encompass the likes of Léon, Lucy, the Transporter and Taken series, Jet Li martial arts vehicle Unleashed, parkour gangster flick District B13 and many others. In a way, though, his most action-packed film is still his debut, in the sense that it depends almost entirely on movement—of bodies, objects and the camera—to tell its story. Even in a time when films like Valerian continue to push the frontiers of VFX, to simply let motion speak for itself is still one bang-up special effect.
Jonah Jeng is a writer and film studies graduate student whose work has been featured in Reverse Shot, The Film Stage, Taste of Cinema and Film Matters. For him, joy is found in the company of loved ones, the enchantment of cinema and the wholesale consumption of avocado egg rolls.