The Fifth Element – 1997

Director Luc Besson
Screenplay Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
Starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Brion James, Tiny Lister Jr., Al Matthews, John Neville, Lee Evans

In 1997, I thought Luc Besson was going to be the next big thing. His movie, Léon: The Professional made me a fan of him, Natalie Portman, Jean Reno and Gary Oldman. I lost the enthusiasm quicker for Besson and Portman than for the latter two, but in 1997 expectations couldn’t get higher. Bruce Willis in the lead of a sci-fi / fantasy that had the looks of the epic starting of a franchise appealed to me. Milla Jovovich, looking every bit the model of fashionwear didn’t hold as much appeal, but I was willing to give it a try.

For whatever reason, this film didn’t hit with me the first few times I tried. It is fascinating to look at, but the costumes and behavior of Earthlings, circa 2263 were a little to Western European. That my wife likes this movie, yet didn’t care as much for classics like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Star Trek threw me off, too. 20 years and about 400 hours of Tim Gunn / Heidi Klum shows later, it makes more sense. She pointed out that the costumes were created by Jean-Paul Gaultier. I responded that I had at least heard of Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The digital effects still in their infancy, and it shows.

Watching it together on a massive HD screen helped to clarify some things for me, at least. Some of the effects, like the car chases through the air of the city and that big space battle versus the massive space ball of evil, don’t hold up as well. At the time, I thought this was a strong suit. There are many other aspects of the film that have aged quite well.

The practical effects are glorious, for the most part. So many remarkable species are given unique lives, it truly feels like the kind of society one would imagine in a futuristic, Trek-type society. It’s the kind of look Lucas was going for in Attack of the Clones for the depths of Coruscant. The key is that it is used in dashes, and not immersed.

The story is about the end of the world. Or at least those who want to bring it on, versus those who would forstall it. Starting in 1914 in an Egyptian temple, their are archaeologists on the verge of discovering a powerful weapon, called The Fifth Element. The weapon has five parts. Four of them are represented in stones as Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. The fifth is in a sarcophagus. Their discovery is interrupted by a race that arrives called Mondoshawans. They arrive, take the stones, the sarcophagus and promise to come back to save the earth before the great evil arrives to destroy everything.

Forward to 2263, when a big ball of evil approaches earth wiping out a space defense force lead by General Staedert (Neville). The Mondoshawans are on their way, communicating via their human priest contact Vito Cornelius (Holm), but they are ambushed by the Mangalores and their ship crashes. The remains of the sarcophagus is a severed hand. Scientists are able to reconstruct the being inside into a slight, but remarkable female named Leeloo (Jovovich). She is terrified by the humans she sees and escapes.

In her escape, she stumbles into a cab driven by the heroically named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). His help leads her back to Cornelius, while being pursued by earth police, military, the Mangalores and Zorg (Oldman).

The Mangalores meet Zorg

The Mangalores are great fun. They’re kind of like a monstrous storm trooper, for those seeking comparison. We see them more than most other beings. They are a mixture of practical and visual effects. It all feels real enough. The Mondoshawans make a couple of nice early appearances. They look like something out of the world of Oz.

One of the underrated elements of the film is the humor. Several absurd elements weave through the film. The biggest of these is Tucker’s Ruby Rhod, who is kind of a futuristic Entertainment Tonight kind of reporter. Many people through the film comment on how brilliant he is, when it’s clear his main talent is high pitched expressions of inconvenience and terror. Tucker is such a unique talent, it feels right that he can be outfitted so ridiculously and still be a draw.

Jovovich performance of Leeloo has aged well. She’s remarked as perfect quite often, and I suppose if we want our saviors to look like gender bending models, that would be close. She is delightful in presenting a perplexed quick learner, trying to survive and complete her mission while cramming study of human history and English language. Her moves and strength will be familiar to those who enjoyed La Femme Nikita.

Bruce Willis is a remarkable performer. People may not realize that he’s amounted to more than just Die Hard films. This film, like Looper, The Sixth Sense, Pulp Fiction, Sin City and 12 Monkeys show an actor who is not afraid of making risky choices feel familiar. He spends much of the film showing his perplexed face while figuring out the best of bad choices along the way. Watching him anchor a film that could have just floated off into space brings a great appreciation for his talent.

Gary Oldman is fresh off of his first wave of theatrical success, including a marvelous performance as Stansfield in Léon: The Professional. Here, he’s an entirely new type of sinister as Zorg, the corporate monster who favors the idea of chaos, as something he believes from which his corporation can profit. He has a drawl, buck teeth and a weird plastic head piece which seems to hold no function. He’s an element of predictably timed antagonism, but he’s fully on board with the mad world that Besson is creating.

The Fifth Element might not work for everyone. The humor is very close to the type Besson used unsuccessfully in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but this is likely due to the fact that the leads could not push the script out of awkward and into funny. Complaints about gender treatment feels more like a misunderstanding of European sensibility or even that of the world of fashion.

The name Korben Dallas just begs for a series of sequels. These never happened. Maybe it is for the best, but I could have enjoyed a few more ventures to other planets in the future. If this writing brings you to giving it a shot and enjoying the world of Leeloo and Ruby Rhod, this will have to do for now.

(**** out of *****)

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