Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Gary Oldman, and Chris Tucker
Runtime: 126 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
The Fifth Element is writer-director Luc Besson’s big, colorful, silly production that’s more about absurd, eye-popping visuals than telling a good story. But any quibbles we might have about the lacking plot are flooded away by the overdose in aesthetics, clearly conceived with little but boldness and vastness in mind. You have to respect a film that goes so far over-the-top and doesn’t falter. It could easily be criticized as a product of self-indulgence—more accurately special effects masturbation—except, the ride is just too damn fun.
The story involves the type of unconditional conflict between Good vs. Bad that can only be designated by capitol letters: Every five hundred years a prophesied Great Evil threatens to destroy the universe. Luckily there’s a Supreme Being, named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich, from Resident Evil), who concentrates the Four Elements (Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water) into a Divine Light that will stop this Great Evil (a psychic black planet with the ability to cause bleeding from the scalp). Makes sense, right?
But the jittery and hyperactive Leeloo, awakened in the year 2263, needs some help, despite her supremeness. Enter ex-military man-turned-taxicab driver Korben Dallas (a bleach-blonde Bruce Willis playing the future’s John McClane) who’s looking for the perfect girl; his ability to blow away bad guys comes in handy when attracting Leeloo. Expert in all things Supreme Being-related, Priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) trails along, determined to protect Leeloo himself. And then there’s the seedy Zorg (Gary Oldman), an industrialist with his hands in everything from black market weaponry to mischievous deeds in the name of the Great Evil. But I haven’t even mentioned the lizardy Mangalore aliens, flamboyant disc jockey Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), or the curious appearance of Luke Perry. They’re all fashion victims thanks to gaudy, futurist costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Having produced and directed a number of both French- and English-language films over the years, Besson, a Frenchman, abandons his usual temperance and poetic touch. Watching his competitive deep sea diving picture The Big Blue, made in 1988, we see his ability to circulate around and gently submerge his audience in the subject; with The Fifth Element, Besson dunks our heads under, nearly downing us, and doesn’t let up until the last possible moment.
His best pictures are marked with a balance between action and emotion, described most movingly by his popular narrative guise: the hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold theme, explored both in La Femme Nikita and Léon (aka The Professional). We can thank Besson for introducing the world to both Natalie Portman and the ultra-cool Jean Reno in the latter, a tragically dark fable punctuated with a spree of bullets and falling tears. The Fifth Element is like Léon if you removed the little girl from the scheme—just a well-paced action movie. And while the manic, seemingly out-of-control pace nearly drops the viewer out of this sci-fi adventure, Besson’s wild images alone are just enough to keep us clinging to the ledge by our fingertips.
Doing his best to achieve epic sci-fi status, Besson follows in the footsteps of his betters, creating mythologies and writing whole languages for his characters. Not that we have the time necessary to stop and appreciate the fine details. We’re too busy spinning along with the film’s psychedelic color wheel, and keeping up with the offbeat slapstick humor. Besides, his made-up Divine language seems like gibberish and his mythology a videogame plotline, both awash in the breakneck pace that’s matched only by the passages of color and violence bursting onscreen. It all flies by at impossible speeds, welcoming repeated viewings to catch every visual facet. We lose ourselves in the bustling flying car chases amid the air traffic of the future’s New York City, impossibly easy gun battles that are more exercises in making Willis look badass, and those body-bending feats in martial artistry composed by Jovovich.
Adding to Besson’s kinetic energy is the music, conceived primarily of Middle Eastern melodies infused with dance floor percussion by Eric Serra, Besson’s frequent composer. Fight scenes play like a music video, with diegetic and non-diegetic music working joyously in unison. One sequence intercuts Leeloo battling gnarly aliens on a space cruiseliner, on the other side of which a techno-operatic concert performed by the blue, tendril-laden diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco) conveniently scores the fight. Punches connect on beat, the tempo picks up with the violence, and they both conclude with applause.Irresistible popcorn-munching escapism, The Fifth Element’s appeal remains a raw experience of diversionary entertainment. We laugh and cheer and ooh and ahh at the pretty colors, explosions, and movement onscreen—all composed with breathtaking effects but nothing much to back them up. Even still, the experience leaves you drained in that way only a good action movie can achieve. Sometimes that’s all viewers need.