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How the French do Summer Blockbusters

French director Luc Besson makes spectacular films that are delightfully bonkers. His latest sci-fi epic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is the most expensive French film ever made, and, like many of Besson’s movies, has split opinion right down the middle. Stylish, fantastical, loopy trip or silly, overstuffed, clunky mess?

There’s some kind of complicated plot of course, something about some dark force jeopardizing the universe. The two leads are played by relative newcomers Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. But there are a few more familiar faces too, including Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna (!).

Scanning through some of the more negative reviews, the pomposity abounds, with joyless critics looking down their long noses and sneering at the audacity of Besson. My movie tastes often lean towards more cerebral fare, yet I enjoy a good popcorn movie as much as the next person. Even the snobbiest of fine-diners can get a kick out of chowing down on some fast food every now and again. And that’s what Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets would appear to be: an A&W Double Cheese Double Bacon Papa Burger with Poutine on the side. Not something you want to eat every week (or perhaps ever), but kinda fun to indulge in once in a while.

One downside to Besson’s all-or-nothing approach to moviemaking is that it has resulted in some pretty dreadful shlock over the years. But, he occasionally hits one out of the park. If Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets captures your imagination, here’s a brief rundown of some of Besson’s best, all well worth seeking out.

Subway (1985)

I watched Besson’s second feature, Subway (1985), multiple times during my formative teenage years and loved its ragtag group of quirky characters living in tunnels beneath the Paris Metro. Christopher Lambert and Isabelle Adjani star in this ultra-cool blend of arthouse, film noir, and action, which also manages to be pretty funny too.

The Big Blue (1988)

Before movies, Besson’s life passion was sea diving. After a diving accident when he was 17 ended this dream, his interests switched to film and he embarked on his career in the movies. After the success of Subway in France, he revisited his earlier passion with The Big Blue (1988), about the enduring rivalry between two world-renowned free divers, played by Jean-Marc Barr and Jean Reno, who have been friends since they were children. This gorgeous movie is full of beautiful scenes and also features Rosanna Arquette and Griffin Dunne.

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Besson’s reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is nothing like that other adaptation, My Fair Lady. Here, “Eliza Doolittle” is drug-addicted, convicted felon, Nikita, played brilliantly by Anne Parillaud. She is given the choice to become an assassin for a sinister government agency or to be killed. So influential was La Femme Nikita (1990), that it was remade in Hong Kong as Black Cat (1991) and in Hollywood as Point of No Return (1993), and inspired the Canadian TV Series La Femme Nikita (1997-2001) and the American TV Series Nikita (2010-2013). Its DNA can be seen in movies such as Wanted (2008), Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol 2 (2004), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) (and sequels).

Léon: The Professional (1994)

Probably Besson’s most critically acclaimed film, Léon: The Professional (1994), starred Jean Reno and a very young Natalie Portman in her film debut. Reno plays the eponymous hero, a professional assassin forced to take in Portman’s character, a 12-year-old girl left orphaned after her family is murdered. Somewhat controversially given her age, Léon enlists her help and teaches her his trade to great effect. And Gary Oldman pops up as an uber-villain extraordinaire.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Beloved of home theatre geeks everywhere for its superlative audio/video quality, The Fifth Element (1997) is another nutbar sci-fi epic in a similar vein to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. With startling costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and an incredibly imagined sci-fi universe, this movie pits a good-guy played by Bruce Willis and a “perfect being” played by Milla Jovovich against an elaborately coiffed bad-boy played by Gary Oldman (again). And Chris Tucker has a hilarious over-the-top turn as an outrageous radio host.

Lucy (2014)

The tagline for Lucy (2014) goes, “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.” Although it doesn’t quite live up to its tagline, it’s a lot of fun seeing Scarlett Johansson once more indulge her super-hero passion in this amped up sci-fi revenge thriller.

Iain Pardoe is an online university instructor who enjoys the movies of Hayao Miyazaki even more than the kids and loves rewatching favourites from his youth with his family when he’s not playing soccer or skiing.