THE LAST BATTLE. Post-apocalyptic science fiction in Luc Besson’s debut

It’s difficult not to appreciate, and even admire, the cinema of Luc Besson.

Krzysztof Walecki

12 December 2023

THE LAST BATTLE. Post-apocalyptic science fiction in Luc Besson's debut

Based on vivid characters, intriguingly outlined dilemmas, and profound emotions, he manages to blend the spectacle and dynamism of action cinema with reflection, and even a rarely seen tragedy in contemporary film entertainment. He doesn’t always succeed in combining these elements into a cohesive whole, but when his senses don’t fail him, his successes are spectacular. However, for every outstanding Nikita, there’s an unnecessary Arthur, raising questions about trust in Besson.

I remember how, for years, he vowed to retire after his tenth film – today, he has several plots to his name, many of which, shot over the past decade, have largely disappointed rather than fulfilled the hopes placed in them. His name is more often associated with the serially produced Taxi and Transporter than his true directorial work. Not to mention that dreadful music video for Madonna’s Love Profusion. It’s challenging to be a Besson fan today, even for those who enjoyed one of his latests films, Lucy (including the undersigned). So, when I recently managed to catch up on his full-length debut, The Last Battle (1983), I felt it was worth describing this title, especially from the perspective of his later work.

the last battle Le dernier combat

In the near future, Earth resembles a vast desert, with former cities turned into ruins where few standing buildings are inhabited by survivors. One of them is the Man (Pierre Jolivet, also the co-screenwriter of the film) – young, intelligent, but somewhat worn down by a world devoid of speech, principles, and seemingly women. When we meet him, he engages in intimate activities with an inflatable doll, and later sneaks into the camp of a nearby gang, stealing a battery needed to start an airplane, and attacking their sleeping leader with a knife. He manages to escape and fly away in the machine, but soon crashes in the debris of the city, perhaps only some factory. There, he encounters Brutal (soon to be Besson’s favorite actor, Jean Reno), who wants to kill him, and later, the Doctor (Jean Bouise), trying to teach him something more than just how to survive in a hostile reality.

Besson’s post-apocalyptic cinema surprises with the fact that it was shot in black and white, which, along with the lack of dialogue, takes us back to the early days of motion pictures. However, it’s hard to speak of a style reminiscent of silent cinema here – although the director tries to tell his story solely through images, focusing on visual simplicity and abandoning typical futuristic settings, The Last Battle exemplifies lively narration very much in the style of the decade from which it originates.

the last battle Le dernier combat Jean Reno

The characters are dressed in typical 20th-century clothing, occasionally adorned with helmets, goggles, gas masks, or other items found in the trash. Their weapons could be a giant sword or a torch made from a combination of a stick and a can. The lack of names surprisingly fits the speechless and colorless reality – on the one hand, emphasizing the world’s artificiality, and on the other, distancing these characters even further from the old civilization and order. Eric Serra’s music, the house composer for The Fifth Element’s creator, strikes with its modern, slightly industrial, and sometimes strongly pop sound, turning what we see on the screen into an almost music video variation on themes previously explored by Mad Max and Escape from New York.

However, futuristic dystopias smiliar to The Last Battle are rarely treated in such an unpretentious, light, though not devoid of drama, manner. The director’s greatest success is the fact that this story about seeking meaning in a seemingly senseless world can surprise the viewer on an emotional level. Operating with simple means, Besson poses questions about interpersonal communication, based not only on violence, automatically distinguishing himself from other post-apocalyptic films. At the same time, he finds his own language of cinema, which he will now use.

the last battle Le dernier combat

What will soon become the domain of the French director’s cinema can already be observed in his first film. Instead of striving for solemnity, the director prefers to focus on smile-inducing details, comic book aesthetics, and a way of thinking in images typical of the medium. Ultimately, in The Last Battle Besson turns away not only from the beginnings of cinema but also from the typical literary nature of French cinema (or even verbosity) and the realism of the New Wave (although continuing its narrative freedom and ethical ambiguity of characters), to present a fresh model of cinematic storytelling, which will find its full expression in his subsequent works: Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), and Nikita (1990).

One could, therefore, perceive The Last Battle as a herald of Besson’s contribution to the trend known as the French cinematic neo-baroque, although the work was created after the premiere of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), considered the beginning of the Cinema du Look (a term coined by Western critics). It’s significant that in the same year, Besson directed and wrote the short film L’Avant Dernier, a vision of the future where two strangely dressed men (Jolivet and Reno) fight in a ruined building – a kind of base for his full-length debut. The third director included in the neo-baroque creators was Leos Carax (Bad Blood, Lovers on the Bridge), who remains to this day a more avant-garde and experimental artist than his two colleagues, as evidenced by his film Holy Motors made some time ago.

the last battle Le dernier combat

The trend was characterized by a greater emphasis on the visual layer than the narrative one (hence the frequent assertion of the form overshadowing the content), a clash between high and popular culture, a class contrast, sensationalism of the story that used popular genres and their patterns. The protagonist was always a young, rebellious person, often at odds with the law, incredibly sensitive, unable to find a place in the existing reality, escaping into the world of art, culture, and even nature. The setting was usually Paris, but sometimes the provinces when the character decided to seek happiness away from the hustle and bustle of the modern city.

Neo-baroque, or rather thinking about the works of these three creators in terms of a certain common filmic thought, ends with the beginning of the nineties and their latest projects, in which the above elements can still be observed. Later, their creative paths diverged. Besson became an international megastar, shooting Leon (1994) in the United States, followed by the elaborate The Fifth Element (1997). As for his two colleagues, it was time for a break (they presented their next stories only after almost ten years). Although this trend is mainly discussed in relation to the work of these directors in the eighties, it is not difficult to judge whether Besson’s cinema has changed so much since then. He remains a visualist, a brilliant storyteller with a clear weakness for all kinds of outsiders and people living in their own way, still bearing the label of the most American of all French directors. The problem lies in the scripts, where the excess of everything often gives a headache.

the last battle Le dernier combat

When watching The Last Battle today, the contrast is visible on two levels. While increasing budgets allow the Frenchman to fulfill his wildest visions (which was inherently impossible in his modest debut), it would be better if the characters in his new productions didn’t speak at all. A picture is enough.