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‘The Fifth Element’: Masterpiece or Mess?

‘The Fifth Element’: Masterpiece or Mess?

The Fifth Element Poster

The Fifth Element

Directed by Luc Besson

Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

USA/France, 1997

Quick question; does a flamboyantly camp and knowingly ridiculous science-fiction adventure costumed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and written by a teenager obsessed with 50’s and 60’s Belgian/French futuristic pulp comics sound like a good idea? The idea that any cynically minded executive would immediately stab his thumb in the air at the pitch of The Fifth Element is as fanciful as the bizarrely hypnotic and anachronistically beautiful world (or worlds) in which it is set. For all intents and purposes, it is a film that never should have been made, and certainly wouldn’t be now, some 15 years later. It seems a piece that suggests that love is the final piece in the puzzle of our survival was allowed to exist through the affection of fans, romantic curiosity of producers, and the undying devotion of its smitten creator.

There’s no doubt that the success of Luc Besson’s hard-boiled first stab into Hollywood’s American market gave him license to finally bring his lifelong passion project to the screens. Leon: The Professional may have faced some mixed reviews from prominent critics, notably Siskel and Ebert, who damned it with negative takes on its themes, but it ultimately won out despite what some detractors referred to as a uniquely European sensibility. Even at its most risky and unconventional, Leon never came anywhere close to the gamble of his follow-up, a script he had started at the age of 15. This was essentially the 90s equivalent to Christopher Nolan using his Dark Knight franchise to justify his dearly beloved pet project Inception. Take a moment to allow the sheer starkness of the contrast in styles to sink in.

Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997)

Taking huge inspirations from the visual styling of Jean Giraud and Jeane-Claude Mezieres and the character codifying Heavy Metal, The Fifth Element acts as a love letter to the classic action sci-fi comics of Luc Besson’s adolescence. Creating a story that is half James Bond in space, half interplanetary exploration of a truly mad future universe, we follow the chain of contrived events following the sudden arrival in the solar system of a “great evil,” a planet-sized elemental demon intent on destroying all life. The only thing that can stop it is are five elements of said life: earth, fire, air, water, and…unknown. That final piece in the jigsaw comes in the form of genetically engineered Leeloominai Lekatariba Lamina-Tchai Ekbat De Sebat, or Leeloo for short. With this flame-haired superheroine, Milla Jovovich’s career in film began.

An apocryphal alien epic is replaced by a high-concept, men-on-a-mission action-adventure, when Leeloo escapes the lab in which she is reanimated and falls through the roof of a taxi driven by former war hero Korben Dallas. The casting of Bruce Willis as Dallas in the role of anti-hero protagonist, his natural home, is probably what confirmed a flashing green light on production and also gives an alienating, odd premise and setting its grounded, human heart. An often bemused and at sea Dallas, he of the divorced miserable existence and dreamer of the perfect woman, almost goes about saving the world accidentally through his affections for the intimidating yet gentle Leeloo. The comic stakes are almost as high as the dramatic ones, allowing the film to enjoy the dividends of its silliness while winking at its audience. Gary Oldman’s over-the-top Southern-fried villain, attempting to procure the world saving stones on behalf of the evil Mr. Shadow, is the clincher.

Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element (1997)

A description of the film’s plot simply doesn’t do justice to the unique bazaar of bizarre that The Fifth Element has to call home. The film’s 1914-set opening prologue at an archaeological site in Egypt both features the bafflingly armored lifesaver alien race the Mondoshawan and a cameo from 90s TV heartthrob Luke Perry. The President of the Federated Territories is played by former wrestler “Tiny” Lister. The futuristic New York City is an overcrowded highway of flying cars, minute apartments, and an underground city that is essentially a landfill. Spaceport-based starplanes have to be routinely torched of tribble-like parasites barnacled to the hull by pot-smoking, reggae-loving maintenance crews. Even random passers-by and citizens are played by models and have the unique physicality to prove it; absolutely everyone wears an outfit out of the wildest imagination of costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Willis, the archetypal gruff man’s man, wears orange skintight tank tops and peroxide blond hair. The only souls not looking splendidly camp are the fascist military element–led by the late, great character actor Brion James as General Munro–who are naturally incompetent and ineffectual and forced into pulling Willis out of retirement when pesky aliens disrupt their plans to protect humanity.

The Fifth Element is a complete shambles, a mess of a film, one that meshes crazed, near nightmarishly colorful originality in its setting and vision with utterly derivative narrative framework. Even the original series Star Trek can’t hold its own against the garish decadence of Besson’s vision of the future or the hokiness of its premise and execution. Throwaway scenes of utter irrelevance are studded throughout, baffling subplots threaten to derail the overall story, and time is spent on single-beat jokes in missteps reminiscent of a hack stand-up comedian. Having not been made in the first place, The Fifth Element should be a galaxy-class disaster, an utterly unrestrained and unapologetic flop and bane of cinephiles. But it isn’t. Not even close. Besson’s sheer enthusiasm somehow manages to make these glaring flaws not just acceptable, but positively charming. The mutated husk of excess ends up coming out as a seductive, charming and intoxicating force for good. And it is just so much fun.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Almost every second scene becomes an unforgettable moment. There is the genuine suspense and dramatic tension of the Great Evil’s first appearance, when John Neville’s beleaguered General orders his enormous battleship to destroy the ball of energy and freezes in terror as his weapons make it larger. A snappily shot, strangely decorated, and wonderfully scored first scene for Dallas plays on every cliché Willis is now famed for and scores big time. This is followed immediately after by a cameo from Mathieu Kassovitz, as a probably cracked up mugger attempting to fleece the hero. There’s the awe-inspiring cityscape of New York circa 2214 and the Hawaii-esque party-land of Phloston Paradise, the design of the angelic Mondoshawan, and the chaotically savage alien mercenary Mangalores. One of the biggest set pieces is a Die Hard-riffing gunfight in a space station’s opera house, featuring physics-defying stunts and gambits. And who honestly wasn’t moved into some kind of emotion by the astonishing new-wave performance of the Diva Plavalaguna?

Emotions may have been different for another character, one whose divisiveness perhaps defines whether you take the film to your heart; the truly remarkable turn by one Chris Tucker as superstar DJ Ruby Rhod, a horrific imagining of the future’s take on sex-symbol image. A preening, feminine and screeching force of nature at complete odds with Bruce Willis, Rhod is introduced performing a “Ruby Rap” for Dallas, flouncing along corridors to the delight of fangirls in a leopard-skin onesie and insane blonde tube hairdo. It is a performance that Nathan Lane would blanche at, and one that manages to make Oldman’s Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg look subtle by comparison. Completely over-exaggerated and…well, over- everything, Tucker is annoying and highly killable, and yet, by film’s end, his Rhod is strangely amiable and endearing. Like much of the film, he is also very funny in a way that his work in the Rush Hour series couldn’t replicate. This world is truly the perfect home for his shtick.

Bruce Willis & Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element (1997)

And yet this is all window dressing, wonderfully created, and intricately placed decoration for a story that at times doesn’t seem to require it, but would be so much worse off without. Whether you like or dislike the screaming style, it cannot be disputed that there is no boredom to be found in The Fifth Element. If the actors can’t find an appropriate dramatic note to strive for, they simply turn things to eleven. If this does not stick, they fall back on their considerable back catalogue; Oldman as the deliciously evil supervillain; Ian Holm as a bumbling, Obi-Wan like priest; Jovovich as a mysterious, mythological messiah-like figure; Willis as the snarky, reluctant hero. This will never bag anyone an Academy Award (except for those in the technical departments, of course), but it does make for a visceral experience akin to some wonderfully loved up drug.

This is really the key to the movie. You cannot sit on the fence and dismiss The Fifth Element as OK. You’re either along for the ride or you’re damning its insanity and lack of boundaries. Even when you slate it for its story, attitude, and style, you cannot be analytical or objective about it as a living, breathing thing. You must either love or hate it. Perhaps a strange narcotic is not the best analogy to make when describing this film’s effect; it’s more like a louder-than-life extrovert at a party, one of questionable moral fiber and debatable motivations. You might find him hugely irritating, damningly unoriginal, and unforgivably domineering, but he simply cannot be ignored. The only question is whether you choose to enjoy his company. For what it is, an experience, The Fifth Element is a ridiculous, unhinged, messy and truly insane masterpiece of excess, masterpiece and mess.

Scott Patterson