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Film Review: The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element (1997; Directed by Luc Besson)

The Fifth Element is primarily a vehicle for madly creative visual design, secondarily a Bruce Willis shoot-up-’em fest, and tertiarily a male-gaze ogle-orgy of the then-fresh-faced Milla Jovovich (who hooked up with and briefly married director Luc Besson during and after the film’s production). The operatically bugnuts French-financed science fiction action-comedy has accrued the status of something close to a genre classic, obvious flaws, general goofiness, and questionable performances aside (Jovovich and Chris Tucker both fully earned their Razzie acting nominations, and Gary Oldman wuz robbed). The Fifth Element might be too silly to be a great film, but it’s fun and imaginative and certainly not unmemorable.

Co-written by Besson with Robert Mark Kamen, The Fifth Element is pure pulpy sci-fi on the narrative level, although perhaps space opera is the truer generic classification (and is made quite literal in one showcase sequence). It pits absolute, merciless, all-devouring evil in the form of a gigantic, expanding, fiery black space singularity which threatens 23rd-century Earth against plucky, naifish, prophesized good in the form of Leeloo (Jovovich), a perfect distillation of titular elemental power in a red-haired female-fashion-model package. Leeloo’s importance is presaged in a (too-lengthy) prologue set in Egypt in 1914, wherein an absent-minded Italian archaeologist (John Bluthal), his louche artist/assistant (Luke Perry), and a mysterious hereditary priest (John Bennett) encounter lumbering, mechanized, Gilliamesque extraterrestrials called Mondoshawans. They warn the priest of the greater coming evil 300 years hence and entrust him with a magical key, which in combination with their treasured elemental stones will muster divine light to defeat the shadowy evil.

The Mondoshawans’ heroic appearance to fulfill their destiny in 2263 is thwarted by porcine mercenary warriors known as Mangalores, who turn out to have been hired to steal the prized stones by the eccentric Southern-accented industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). The only surviving tissue remnant recovered from the wreck of the Mondoshawans’ spaceship by Earth forces is grown in a lab to become Leeloo, who chatters in an ancient language while being leered at by scientists and generals. She escapes and drops into the flying taxi of one Korben Dallas (Willis), a former special forces soldier who is failing his way out of cab driving and elects to help her to escape the authorities. She directs him to bring her to the current priest, Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), who seeks to bring her together with the stones, apparently held for safe-keeping by a blue-skinned opera diva who will rendezvous with them aboard a massive interstellar cruise ship. With the reluctant aid of effeminate chatterbox radio personality Ruby Rhod (Tucker), Korben, Leeloo, and the priest will attempt to beat Zorg and the Mangalores to the stones and then save the universe from oblivion.

If this written synopsis makes The Fifth Element sounds like a deluging cascade of exhausting, fanciful, whimsical nonsense, imagine what it’s like to actually watch the damned thing. It’s an avalanche of gallic excess, from Dan Weil’s production design (based on concept art by French comics artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières) to Jean Paul Gaultier’s magnificently odd gender-bending costumes to Thierry Arbogast’s saturated cinematography. Besson and his team create a spectacular and deeply weird cinematic world, defined as much by its tiny details and wacky sight-gags as its wider vistas. Its humour can manifest broad slapstick one moment and slyly satirical the next. Besson can veer from the artful avant-garde to the explosive action blockbuster in a quick flash, and frequently does in the film’s final hour: the alien opera singer performs while intercut with Leeloo kung-fu-ing a squad of Mangalores to save the stones, followed by a manic-destructive shootout between Korben and the rest of the piggish thugs.

These broad brushstrokes continue into the supporting performances by Oldman, so insane and over-the-top he’s almost back under again, and Tucker, whose grating high-pitch motormouthed riffs contrast with Willis’ usual stoic directness and self-deprecating irony. Tucker really is a bit too much, but at least Besson doesn’t give in to the temptation to throw him together with the more amusingly wild Oldman for an overacting-off (Tucker and Holm share a brief comic scene over a bomb timer that surely must constitute one of the most incongrous mis-pairings in film history).

Besson’s tone is so consistently frenetic and wacky that when he belatedly attempts to make a weightier point about the immorality of human conflict, it ought to, by all rights, fall flat. But just as freakish visual eccentricity manages to coexist with action blockbuster conventions elsewhere in The Fifth Element, pausing amidst the fabricated madness to contemplate the true madness of war. This is hardly the only French film to slam seemingly incompatible elements together until they vaguely fit with one another, nor the only one to bring Gallic flourishes of lush artistry to the action-adventure genre. But The Fifth Element, for all of its silliness, is perhaps the purest and most entertaining distillation of that embrace of hybridity run rampant. Besides, of course, France itself.

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