Forget May the Fourth, how about some Fifth? This post is dedicated to a dear friend of mine who loves this movie, has a birthday today, and is currently on a mission trip halfway around the world. You can see a sample of the work she is doing for the Lord and for people here.
Korben Dallas is your ordinary 23rd-century taxi driver who has an unexpected encounter with a gorgeous girl who so happens to be key to saving the universe. Aliens and a greater evil are threatening innocent people everywhere, and they and the rest of this delightfully absurd but thoroughly messed-up film are about to learn why you just don’t mess with Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich … or Chris Tucker.
I’d like to take a few pictures. For the archives.
The film’s opening sequence takes place in the early 1900s, introducing a race of alien guardians, a religious order, and their shared mission–protect life, whatever the cost. A doomsday prophecy is set to come true in 300 years, and these precious teachings must be passed down so the foretold Fifth Element and its four companions (represented as special stones) can prevent destruction. One of the first things to notice about this movie is that its many imagined species look especially distinctive from one another, alternating between seeming creative and derivative without just looking like different-colored humans.
Many of the settings, however, are extremely inspired and are among the best I’ve seen in films of this kind. Futuristic New York City is gorgeous inside and out and is filled with colorful and exciting details, from ordinary people conducting their everyday business to hundreds of cars flying by, throughout a wide variety of environments. (McDonald’s still exists in the twenty-third century, though its female crew members’ uniforms seem to have been … reduced.)
All is not well, however, as a gigantic evil entity is moving quickly throughout space, threatening the earth and proving unstoppable. It can’t be destroyed by militaristic means: communication drones make a good lunch, and missiles make it stronger and angrier. What’s the ultimate solution? An anti-war message, of course, but not before the film brings out some crazy weapons and crazier fights.
The narrative unfolds simply but gives the viewer plenty to look at. Korben Dallas’ apartment is something of a dump despite its admirable attempts at establishing high-tech surroundings, complete with innumerable gadgets and conveniences that somehow still don’t make his life easier, but the same goes for many things in this movie.
After an unrelated spaceship fight turns disastrous, enough of a lone individual’s genetic material is salvaged, being used to reconstruct her in a really nice special-effects sequence. She’s pretty yet fierce, and her name is Leeloo. Her grasp of English, and of societal female-toplessness taboos, is not the greatest, but Milla Jovovich’s often nonverbal acting is one of the greatest highlights of the movie. She growls at a decorated military officer and quickly incapacitates him with her highly developed reflexes while wearing nothing but bright orange hair and bandages. A police chase ensues for this mysterious woman (who obviously lacks digital identity records), and before long she–super-intelligent but essentially wild–is diving off the side of a building. And whose taxicab does she land on?
Leeloo and Dallas have a charming first meeting; she immediately begins rambling quickly in her alien tongue, but Jovovich does an excellent job of telling her story clearly through her emotions. An order is placed for Leeloo’s arrest, and the “timid-animal” look on her face does a tremendous job of evoking emotion and of setting up her later character development, though in a way that comes across either as extreme subtlety or as the movie being unaware of its own great ideas. After an exciting and dangerous chase through the air, Dallas gets thrown into a mystical, somewhat spiritual quest that his pragmatic, sarcastic personality couldn’t be any less suited for. His character does have a warm and compassionate side, which is a delight to see (though I’ll mention that I hated this when I was young, since “Bruce Willis shedding tears” or showing much of any human emotion wasn’t really in my vocabulary).
The Fifth Element really starts unleashing its payload of crazy when “Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg” shows up, complete with his heavily overpowered and completely gratuitous weapon system as well as a thick Southern-not-French accent. There’s a subplot involving other evil aliens and questionable loyalties, and while it isn’t particularly important or meaningful in the big picture, it’s a guilty pleasure and is a ton of fun to watch. Zorg’s motivations for creating death and destruction are interesting, though, since I’ve heard them before in real life. (The rebuttal is that law-enforcement and medical professionals have enough to deal with without needing to add to their workload just to keep them busy and give them something to do.)
Somewhere around here, the movie all but throws its sanity out a window.
I only speak two languages–English and bad English!
Yet another subplot involves an opera diva, but what’s really worth noticing is that Chris Tucker as the rather frightening media host Ruby Rhod (take five seconds to consider the seedy implications of such a name, then cringe) has an absurd amount of power over strangely scantily clad ladies despite being more or less insane. Tucker’s hyperactive performance is magnetic, though, and he definitely proves that he can get and keep audience attention for a good while. (Contrast movies like Silver Linings Playbook that keep him in the background.)
Rhod and a random lady wind up sharing a tiny ‘bed’ in a mostly offscreen but exaggerated and thoroughly irreverent sequence where she visibly climaxes right as a bunch of people get murdered elsewhere. The movie embraces its bizarre nature not for the better or the worse but the weird, but at least it picks a lovely location to do so. Fhloston Paradise is beautiful, with amazingly conceived exteriors and interiors that make it a wonderfully convincing vacation spot.
As the alien diva carries on her performance, the movie remembers it’s an action film and unleashes a crazy-looking firefight, complete with Chris Tucker screaming at a higher pitch than nearly any girl I’ve ever heard. The Fifth Element vacillates between extreme silliness and extreme seriousness at a moment’s notice, and several characters both hostile and innocent end up shedding considerable amounts of blood.
Despite the jokes, the movie’s ending is standard fantasy fare, but its biggest and most important risk lies in Leeloo learning and comprehending many of the darkest parts of human history. This moment is a tremendous success for her (because of Jovovich’s excellent acting throughout the film, which could become emotional for some viewers) and a failure for the movie, which gluts itself with ethics-free stylized violence and then tries to shove in an anti-war message without irony, but the presence of that risk is still significant and noteworthy.
I can most definitely understand that The Fifth Element’s thoroughly addled mix of its own elements will not be for everyone. The story’s combination of fantasy, science fiction, comedy, and serious action has nothing of Star Wars’ subtlety or elegance, and parents of younger viewers will want to be aware of the rather strong language, sexuality, and violence (especially when the last two occur in tandem) for the film’s rating, as well as a few instances of drug use. That being stated, this space romp finds ways to create uniqueness from cliche ingredients and makes fine use of its actors, all of which combine to merit quite a recommendation–even if you may want to rest between viewings.
Conclusion: Just like driving a cab.
This is a film that I fully expect to divide audiences and opinions, but if the idea of a rather typical if sometimes distracted story overflowing with weirdness and personality excites you, then The Fifth Element may be right up your alley. The question of how well the film actually uses its many good ideas might be debated endlessly, but in general the aliens, the technology, the settings, and the characters themselves are quite memorable and a ton of fun to watch even if the attempt at a “message,” regardless of its inherent value, feels downright inappropriate considering the circumstances.
The Fifth Element is, if nothing else, a remarkable production consisting of unremarkable ingredients that more often than not are simply given a new burst of identity by being taken to their logical extremes. This might not exactly make it an accessible film for casual or novice science-fiction viewers, but lovers of space heroics who want to see just how far a story can twist this well-traveled genre while still taking itself fairly seriously will do well to give this a shot.
Image sources (property of Gaumont)
– Korben Dallas, armed – source
– Leeloo jumping – source (spoilers)
– Zorg with gun – source
– Armed alien – source
– RUBY RHOD – source (spoilers and some NSFW images but also an interesting technological analysis)
– Fhloston Paradise, exterior – source
– Fhloston Paradise, interior – source
– Fhloston Paradise, interior 2 – source
– Diva singing – source
– Floating street vendor – source
– Korben, Leeloo, and Multipass – source