SUB-GENRES: Action / Adventure
DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson
WRITTEN BY: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen (screenplay); Luc Besson (story)
PEW PEW: The Fifth Element definitely offers up a fine helping of action.
CAT FOOD: The film has some interesting things to say about the forces of love and greed, among other things. Cat food itself is also mentioned a couple times!
I’m having a lot of fun lately with films that like to polarise my critical opinion. When I last saw The Fifth Element, it was in the drive-in on a double bill with Men In Black. I can tell you 100% that the me from 1997 didn’t like the film at all and it took me nearly twenty years to revisit it. There were a few things I liked: the awesomeness of Bruce Willis and Leeloo… How could one not like Leeloo?! But for whatever reason, I did not like the film. Has my opinion changed? Yes. I won’t say it totally did, but my opinion definitely changed.
The film starts by setting up its overarching story line. In 1914, a peaceful alien race arrives at an Egyptian ruin to collect four stones representing the four elements, along with a casket containing a fifth element that has taken the form of a human being. It is explained that a great evil appears every five thousand years (because for some reason*, in a universe so massive, great evils like to set repeating schedules for themselves that totally allow their enemies to prepare for them and foil their great evil plans…) and attempts to destroy Earth. When that time comes again, the stones and the person must be arranged in a specific way that will repel the evil.
The Fifth Element’s chief story line begins in 2263, when said evil finally does appear in the form of a giant, fiery planetoid that is hurtling toward Earth. The aliens attempt to deliver the stones and the fifth element to a priest when an evil corporate tyrant named Zorg has them ambushed and destroyed. It is assumed that the stones are lost, but a hand from the fifth element is found and the being is reconstructed from the DNA.
Enter Leeloo, gorgeous, lithe, redhead extraordinaire. After she escapes the facility in which she is reborn, Leeloo crash lands onto Korben Dallas’ cab, thrusting him into this complicated and almost frustratingly eclectic fight to save the Earth from obliteration.
The Fifth Element has me seriously arguing with myself. For every like I have for this film, there is a dislike, and for every dislike a like. While we’ve since had similar films that thrust their viewers into a universe of unexplained alien cultures and histories, I’d say that they have learned from this film how to better create a viewing experience for their audiences. For instance, Guardians of the Galaxy thrusts us into at least as much unknown mythology as The Fifth Element does, but it presents a more linear story line that welcomes the viewer into the experience, instead of trying to baffle him with how many crazy things can be fit into an even crazier story line.
Story wise, however, The Fifth Element is kind of a flip-side to Blade Runner. Both films are set in a cyberpunk landscape and deal with greed, overt commercialism, the power of the heart, and the struggle to love and survive at the same time. They do, however, differ quite tremendously in disposition. Blade Runner is dark, rainy, and bleak, and its characters are brooding victims. The Fifth Element, on the other hand, is colourful, sunny, and quirky, with its characters taking on a more satirical and comedic role.
The production design is breathtakingly gorgeous, and equally unique. There are plenty of cool settings that present a visual feast for sci-fi and cyberpunk junkies. The futuristic New York City presented in the film, for instance, is a brilliant tapestry of grand architecture and flying cars. The feel of the modern New York still exists in this future representation, however, letting the viewer know that this is indeed the same Big Apple that we’re used to seeing on film, if only a couple hundred years in the future. And the costume design. Dude. So cool.
The casting is also great. There are so many damn actors in this film that I swear the casting people had to pick the nineties up by the ankles and shake them all out from the deepest parts of the decade’s pockets. Lee Evans even makes an appearance for crying out loud! Of severe note is Bruce Willis’ signature every man approach being applied to the cyberpunk staple cab driver. I’ll admit, however, that I didn’t really dig either Gary Oldman or Chris Tucker in the film, which is odd because I adore both actors considerably. I do appreciate the parody they represent in the movie, though, and I eventually got used to them. Both have hilarious lines that end up being the film’s best.
From an enjoyability standpoint, I have to say that the film does offer quite a bit of oddball antics and satisfying action sequences. Oddly, I am dismayed by the overwhelming amount of camp and utterly useless sidebits that serve only to frustrate the overall narative flow. The film’s presentation is such that it’s ultimately too quirky and comedic to take seriously, but it’s also somehow insistent on its seriousness, which undermines any sort of cohesion.
The Fifth Element is insanely far-fetched and downright irritating at times, but it also just happens to be visionary and bold at the same time. I don’t rightly know how in the hell someone walked in and pitched the idea for this movie and, furthermore, how it got greenlit, but it stands as one truly unique science fiction film that hasn’t aged terribly just yet. Perhaps, if it had been executed a little differently, I would call The Fifth Element a classic, but I’m leaning more towards a respectful nod to its brilliance, with a slump and a head shake at its blunders.
It’s definitely not bad and I won’t say it’s great, but, if you’re not adverse to quirkiness, The Fifth Element is definitely worth trying out to decide for yourself.
(*the three planets in eclipse opens up a doorway to evil… it’ll do…)