– Summary –
Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Gary Oldman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Brion James, Tricky, Tom Lister Jr, Christopher Fairbank, Lee Evans, John Bluthal, Luke Perry, John Bennett, Kim Chan, John Neville, Al Matthews, Maïwenn Le Besco.
Year of Release: 1997
Length : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: When the Ultimate Evil is unleashed upon the universe, a former soldier teams up with a young woman to locate the Fifth Element, the only known thing that can prevent galactic annihilation. Guns and explosions appear in fairly substantial quantity.
Review : Quirky, sly, unique sci-fi outing from Luc Besson, with Willis in wonderful touch, and Gary Oldman playing one of his best roles in ages. Surprisingly cool, and largely underrated.
When The Fifth Element was released in cinema’s here in Australia, it was with little fanfare and almost no critical impetus. I think the film’s somewhat crazy cinematic style and narrative prevented it from finding a decent mainstream audience here, but since it’s release on VHS (and DVD twice, and BluRay twice!) it’s become a home theatre standard in the same way they still play It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmas. That is, it’s a film that’s managed to gain a cult status here in Australia through sheer word of mouth and constant appraisal of it as the go-to film for setting up your brand new surround sound system. Well, that, and The Matrix. The cacophonous soundtrack, with that brilliant orchestral, synthesiser score from Eric Serra (whose score for The Professional remains a true genre classic), wonderful production design, and some truly extraordinary special effects, make The Fifth Element a true cinematic classic, in almost ever sense of the word.
Bruce Willis plays a near-spot on parody of his heroic persona, as an ex-military officer charged with locating the mysterious Fifth Element, recovering some lost mystical stones and saving the universe. It’s all terrifically tongue-firmly-in-cheek, and Willis is supremely cool at this kind of thing. Teamed with a stuttering, stammering Ian Holm, the gorgeous Milla Jovovitch (in her breakout role as Leeloo), and a gregarious Gary Oldman being his usual villainous self (!), The Fifth Element manages to skirt outright comedy for a lightweight, brilliantly executed mix of laughs and drama, in what can only be described as Star Wars on acid.
Bizarre concepts, outlandish costumes, frenetic dialogue (especially from a maniacal Chris Tucker as an extra-terrestrial DJ) keep the plot moving along at a fairly rapid pace, with an almost abandonment of structure in favour of a cracking, crackers, narrative structure. There’s scientists, alien villains, people leaping from buildings miles in the air, nudity, weapons, violence, militaristic pseudo-fascism, Mac MacDonald visiting McDonalds, pollution and explosions. Sounds more like a Michael Bay of Paul Verhoeven film than something from Luc Besson, but there you go.
When the Ultimate Evil is unleashed upon the universe, as it is every 500 years or so, a race of creatures from the other side of the galaxy have the only weapon that can defeat it. An evil industrialist named Zurg (Gary Oldman) has a plan to wrest control of the Fifth Element, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) from the protection of the Government agent Corben Dallas (Willis) and a nervous cleric (Holm), who seek to save the universe by gathering some precious stones from a famous Diva. Along the way, Corben and Leeloo encounter Ruby Rhod, a DJ with about as much interpersonal depth as a layer of paint. Rhod, who at first begins as an annoying, god-awful pain in the butt of a character (and ends up the same way, actually) who develops into an essential part of the team who embark on their perilous mission.
While the character development in The Fifth Element can be described as “tenuous” at best, with each character ending up pretty much the same at the end and they began, the film relies less on your emotional connection to the cast and more on your ability to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy the roller-coaster ride you’re presented with. The film moves at a fairly cracking pace for a majority of it’s running time, especially the final third, which is pretty much all explosions and gunfire. The film’s narrative moves in alternate directions between outright action (Dallas’s battle with Zurg’s henchmen in the films final act) to slapstick farce in short order, leaving you with a puzzling kind of mish-mash that, strangely, actually turns out to be quite entertaining. Rather than being confusing, the way Besson has crafted the film is actually pretty clever, because it keeps the audience guessing as to it’s possible outcome.
If there’s a downside to the the film’s generous lumping of sly wit, crafty action, and self-assured impossible-ness, then it’s the rather lopsided climax that ends so quickly you wonder “what, is that it?”. As fast as the film builds it’s tension towards the end, the fall-off after the climax is so sudden, so unexpected, that it almost mitigates the fanciful build-up that came previously. It’s like the scriptwriters couldn’t come up with a more satisfying, dazzling climax so they just had it all end, suddenly. The Ultimate Evil, which has been built up for the entire film as one of the deadliest enemies in all of cinema history, is reduced to a smouldering ball of charcoal in about a millionth of the time it takes to actually get to the denouement. Given the build-up, I expected more.
That said, the film’s style, misanthropic narrative and sense of fun ensures that no matter what kind of cinema you like, there’s something in this film you’ll appreciate. While Bruce Willis might not be for everybody, and Jovovich can be annoyingly cute at times, in a Euro-trash kind of way (sorry Milla, but it’s true) The Fifth Element is so lazy-afternoon enjoyable that you can’t help but smile while watching it.
Eric Serra’s score, which appears to have been crafted by the boys in the foley studio, remixed and turned into music, is sublime. Employing a plethora of synthesizer material, coupled with actual sounds, plus a thunderously cool bassline, The Fifth Element’s sci-fi tone is enhanced by this unique, exquisite sound. It’s like sitting in a futuristic jazz club, while the band jams with no specified direction. His mix of the Diva’s performance (voiced by soprano Inva Mula-Tchako) is perhaps the centerpiece of the film, traversing the heavy opera sound to a more modern pop-dance style in a way that appears so natural it feels like it’s always been that way. If you get a chance to listen to the score by itself, do it. It’s a fascinating combination of music and sound.
It’s hard to categorize The Fifth Element in the genre’s of sci-fi. It’s not a comedy, per se, and neither is it hard sci-fi a la Blade Runner or Alien. I guess you’d categorize it as a blend of fantasy and mythical, a cosmic joke told at the expense of realism: it’s all style and “coolness” over any kind of substance. While some might say that The Fifth Element is a fanciful mess, overshadowed by some over-the-top performances (Gary Oldman, in particular) and amazing costume design, I think it’s a lot less about any serious issues and more about the simple pleasure of watching a cool story told with the kind of style most American directors can only wish they had.
If you haven’t seen it yet, or have been reluctant to give it a try due to it’s sci-fi leanings: it’s awesome. It’s kind of an anti-Star Wars, if you will, designed to entertain in a way that’s hardly likely to involve lightsabres.