The Fifth Element (1997) Retro Review

The Fifth Element is what you get when you punch European style through American pulp fiction and let a bunch of fashion models run through the ragged hole with laser guns and cigarettes. This big funky sci-fi picture is a lovable homage to the works of Osamu Tezuka, Heavy Metal, Moebius (Jean Giraud), Pierre Christin, Jean-Claude Mézières and many more ingredients both obscure and slightly less obscure. A distinctly French endeavor from action director Luc Besson, IMDB states that in 1997 it was the most expensive film ever produced outside Hollywood. And unlike any science fiction epic produced in the current century, it is a cornucopia of fun and bright colors. Let’s think about that. Can you, off the top of your head, think of any sci-fi film (or video game, for that matter) made in the last decade that didn’t rely on a color scheme of gray and washed out blue?

The Fifth Element was the dream project of Besson, a galaxy bursting forth from a rainbow piñata stuffed with equally colorful concepts. As such, some of that gooey goodness sticks the landing. Some of it, no. Nope. Uh-uh.

How does Leloo know how to use a key card? What does Zorg expect to use his money on when the universe is ash? What is Mr. Shadow’s goal in turning the universe to ash exactly? If Korben Dallas is the last man from his unit left alive, when exactly did he serve with Finger? Is the President’s job in the year 2XXX to sit in the same room all day and try to avoid “a incident?” How did the Plavalaguna fit the stones in her body? For that matter, what is the Plavalaguna? How much of her outfit is part of her body, how much of it is a dress, and how much of it is a ridiculous rubber costume? How does Cornelius know what the diva’s room looks like? Is it a joke that the police in this film seem to appear and disappear without any understanding of the plot or is it just the result of clunky writing?

A lot of this film is the result of clunky writing. I imagine it has a lot to do with the European production crew. There are certain cuts and line readings that will inspire confused double takes from the audience, sometimes following perfectly reasonable cinematic moments. A beautiful shot of Leloo leaping into the dizzying traffic of future New York is immediately followed by a cop saying, “She dove off.” Not only is the line absurdly redundant, it is delivered so poorly that the fact that it appears in the final film is confounding.

So is the film perfect? In no way, shape or form. No film is perfect, obviously, but in sci-fi films – especially ones that attempt the scope of this one – the elements that do not mesh or fall flat are exacerbated by the outlandish setting, turning grandeur into silliness. But this, I firmly believe, is what saves The Fifth Element.

At its heart, this is a silly movie. Much of what occurs occurs with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and even more of what seems over the top is really just a twisted exaggeration of the modern day. Ruby Rhod, as played by the high-pitched Chris Tucker, is often cited as the most annoying part of an otherwise acceptable feature. Is Ruby really so far removed from morning radio hosts and Hollywood celebrities that his antics are unrecognizable? No, that character could only work as Tucker plays him: a cartoonish buffoon, the foil to Bruce Willis’ weary and unstoppable action man. (I think it’s also not unreasonable to assume Ruby and Korben represent the yin and yang of America, how it’s perceived by the world versus how it perceives itself.) The Fifth Element is really a live action cartoon – in the best way possible – and its madcap pacing and technology and aliens are all proof of that. Where the film trips is when its drama intercepts its comedy. The dramatic moments never quite find equal footing with the zany tone, too undermined by the comedy perhaps, or simply too out of place.

Speaking of which, it’s odd to see Bruce Willis in a picture like this but I can happily say it may be what makes the movie. He is undoubtedly the straight man and, for perhaps the last time in his film career, he genuinely attempts to act along with the ensemble. The actor’s smooth delivery and sly comic timing almost (but not quite) approach what made him so fun to watch in his Moonlighting days. The more I familiarize myself with that 1980s sitcom the easier it becomes to frame the rest of Willis’ career as a sharp withdrawal from that out and out good time guy.

Bruce Willis is not a great actor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Bruno fan, but the actor does his best work when he’s given a certain role. Like Harrison Ford, Willis is entrenched in our pantheon of macho movie heroes. But neither of them are known for their subtlety or their range. It’s movies like The Fifth Element that remind one that Willis actually has it in him to be far more entertaining than he allows himself to be. God forbid someone laugh at Bruce Willis ever again, but from time to time the actor loosens up on screen, and that’s when he does his best work. The original Die Hard is probably one of the few films that balances his energy and his machismo, and while his Korben Dallas is no John McClane, his willingness to roll with the wackiness is refreshing. Unfortunately, what does separate Dallas from McClane is that seed of self-consciousness that infected the actor’s every subsequent film. But I have digressed far enough.

By dispensing with its flaws up front, I can say that the rest of The Fifth Element is a candied feast for the eyes devoted to entertaining at every turn. Hard science fiction certainly has its place in the annals of art, but Besson’s baby is one fun flick. Gary Oldman, fresh off playing the psychotic arch-villain in The Professional, rejoins his director to play the kooky and so-very-southern villain Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg. It is a delicious turn from a terrific actor. He is surrounded by an ensemble brimming with character actors and fashion models, almost all of whom give it their all – such as they are able to give.

At the end of the day, The Fifth Element is just fun, and sometimes that’s all that matters. There have been several times in my life when just watching Korben Dallas wake up in his tiny apartment in the 5,000 block makes me feel a little bit better about myself. And Milla Jovovich in her thermal wear never did anybody a bad turn.

The Fifth Element (1997)
PG-13
Directed by Luc Besson
Columbia Pictures
126 Minutes

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5 comments

  1. Derek Nahigyan Reply

    Back when Mila Jovavich did things other than her husbands fan fiction movies.

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