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Should I Watch..? The Fifth Element
What's the big deal?
The Fifth Element is an action sci-fi film released in 1997 and was co-written and directed by Frenchman Luc Besson. The film is mainly set in the 23rd century and sees taxi driver Korben Dallas roped into an adventure to save the planet from an impending apocalypse. The cast features Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker and Milla Jovovich who Besson would later go on to marry. The film became a cult hit and synonymous with the wildly extravagant costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and production design by French comic artists Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières. It became the highest grossing French film in history with takings of around $263 million until 2010's The Intouchables (1).
What's it about?
Back in 1914, aliens known as Mondoshawans arrived to collect a powerful weapon for safe-keeping from a secret order of priests. The weapon - four stones representing the four traditional elements and a sarcophagus - is used to defeat a great evil which threatens the Earth every five thousand years. Sure enough, in 2263, the evil emerges as a giant ball of black fire which proceeds towards the Earth. As the Mondoshawans arrive to deliver the weapon, they are ambushed by another alien species known as the Mangalores who are being hired by villainous industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg.
With the stones now missing, all that is recovered is a hand from the sarcophagus. Reconstructing the body, a humanoid woman is created who takes the name Leeloo. Confused and terrified by her surroundings, she escapes from the military compound by throwing herself off a building and crashing onto the roof of unassuming taxi driver Korben Dallas. Upon learning of Leeloo's significance, Korben finds himself thrust into the middle of an extraordinary adventure to recover the lost stones and save the world.
Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg
Father Vito Cornelius
Maïwenn Le Besco
Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen *
Release Date (UK)
6th June, 1997
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nomination
Best Sound Effects Editing
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Supporting Actress (Jovovich), Worst New Star (Tucker)
What's to like?
Sci-fi films have always placed a certain emphasis on the visual effects whether it's the USS Enterprise blasting off into warp drive or Keanu Reeves dodging bullets. But few make quite the impression that The Fifth Element does - it's a veritable explosion of colour, fashion, imagination and mysticism. Even minor characters have so much effort put into their appearance that it's almost as though Jean Paul Gaultier is directing the film instead. As a sheer spectacle, this is one film that's hard to beat.
The other thing about the film is its very unique feel that's immediately noticeable the first time you see it. It's extremely Gallic, exuding a camp and cartoony vibe that's quite a jolt from the po-faced seriousness of Star Wars and Star Trek. You don't quite fully buy into the picture but Oldman's perfectly slimy villain and Willis's futuristic take on John McClane provide the film with enough to just about relate to. But I applaud Besson for daring to be as bold as he was - after all, why can't the future be bright and colourful? It's not meant to be Blade Runner (2), after all. The script is a little confusing but there are odd laughs to be found and some pretty sharp dialogue in there as well, providing you concentrate.
- Le Besco, who plays the blue alien opera singer, was in a relationship with Besson and even had a child with him at the start of shooting. By the end of the shoot, Besson had left her for Jovovich and they married later that year but later divorced in 1999.
- At the time, this was the most expensive film produced outside of Hollywood with a budget in the region of $90 million. $80 million was reserved purely for special effects.
- Besson originally conceived of the universe of the film when he was a child, writing the story that would become the screenplay when he was just 16. He was 38 by the time it opened in cinemas.
What's not to like?
It's difficult not to start this section without mentioning the scene-stealing Tucker as hyperactive loudmouth Ruby Rhod. His performance, if you can call it that, seems to consist of oozing sexuality and screaming his dialogue at such a volume that even the dead take notice. If you hated him in stuff like Rush Hour (3) or its sequels then you'll never want to see or especially hear him again after The Fifth Element.
Annoyingly, the film is as much a disappointment as the visual are fantastic. The story feels weak and disjointed while characterisation never makes an appearance at any stage of proceedings. It isn't helped by the unnecessarily large number of characters in the film so as a result, you never really know what's going on. It also isn't that imaginative - take the scenes in New York with its endless skyscrapers and flying taxis out-running the equally airborne police cruisers. This is probably due to Besson's use of Giraud and Mézières whose artwork proved hugely influential to the likes of George Lucas whilst he was producing Star Wars (4), among others. It also seems to take forever to get going which also tested my patience somewhat. It's an experience and something of a challenge but The Fifth Element can't sustain its own momentum for the full duration.
Should I watch it?
It might not make a lot of sense but The Fifth Element should be celebrated for straying from the well-worn path and following its own star. Bold, inventive and unforgettable, the film's visuals are pretty much the sole reason for seeing the film which is confusing, excessively camp and feels much longer that it is. I appreciate it as a film-making exercise but alas, such quality and effort is wasted in a film that really should have been better.
Great For: the French, fashionistas and trend spotters, pot heads
Not So Great For: genuine sci-fi lovers, fans of Star Wars, anyone who hates Chris Tucker
What else should I watch?
What can you compare a film as unique as The Fifth Element to? Obviously, you have your Star Trek and Star Wars films and almost everyone will have a preference for one or the other. But weirdly, their very strengths - the sheer depth of their respective universes and the number of films available - make The Fifth Element all the more special because there was just the one (Besson has publicly rejected the idea of a sequel). A similar argument could be made with the Alien (5) franchise although those films lack the colourful atmosphere of this film.
The only other film I can recall that placed such an emphasis on visuals above all else was the disappointing follow-up to cult favourite Pitch Black (6), The Chronicles Of Riddick (7). It too was blighted by a poor screenplay (or two small scripts bolted together, in truth) and an already passé view of the future but it looked amazing. Costumes, sets, the works. However, it lacks the joy of The Fifth Element and remains a grim, unenjoyable picture.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox