Twenty years ago, writer/director Luc Besson brought a new sci-fi vision to the big screen, heavily inspired by the work of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières... and now he's done it again. There are many connections to draw between the cult classic The Fifth Element and the upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets -- but it seems that a new thing the two movies have in common is the critical response.
The review embargo for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets lifted yesterday evening, and the earliest write-ups suggest the movie is going to get a mostly positive, but mixed response. Every critic thus far has commented on the intense visual spectacle the film, but some are more forgiving when it comes to the weaknesses in its narrative and its pacing. It seems that it's a blockbuster you're either on board with or not, and that's practically identical to the responses that The Fifth Element received back in the late 1990s.
Take this pull quote, for example:
It's more of a jumble that includes greatness. Like "Metropolis" (1926) or "Blade Runner," it offers such extraordinary visions that you put your criticisms on hold and are simply grateful to see them. If Besson had been able to link those sights with a more disciplined story and more ruthless editing, he might have really had something.
That could easily come from a review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but it's actually from Roger Ebert's write-up of The Fifth Element when it first came out. Like the many who now qualify themselves as fans, notable writers like Ebert, Gene Siskel, and Owen Gleiberman gave Luc Besson's bombastic sci-fi flick positive marks for its creativity and ingenuity -- even while recognizing that it still has significant problems.
With a total of 60 reviews counted, The Fifth Element carries a 72% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet's current 78%) -- but what's funny is that the archives show that some critics who weren't on-board for Besson's first bit of sci-fi craziness also aren't digging his latest feature. While writing for Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote of The Fifth Element,
Besson throws everything he can think of into the mix, and loudly, without much regard to the meaning of the individual parts and how they might interrelate. Film remains passably interesting for a while, but degenerates as its lack of discipline and focus becomes overwhelmingly apparent.
And in his particularly harsh review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, written for The Hollywood Reporter, McCarthy says:
What ensues is unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible and, before long, an excellent sedative; anyone who could clearly lay out what takes place in this narrative in 25 words or less would deserve a small prize.
So if you're familiar with the tastes of Todd McCarthy and typically agree with him, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may not be your cup of tea. That being said, there are still plenty of other professional voices who are singing praise for the blockbuster's ambition and spirit, and your own personal tastes may line up more with theirs'.
At the time of this article's posting, only 23 reviews of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets have been written and activated, which means that it's score could still fluctuate a bit -- but given what we've seen so far, it seems as though The Fifth Element is a good field-guide to understanding how critics en masse will react to the blockbuster.