Originality is a rare commodity in movies these days. Adaptations, remakes and wholly derivative works clog the cinemas and jostle one another in cajoling you for your money. There was a time when an original spectacle didn’t have to count on a phrase like “You have to see it in 3-D to get the most out of it.” I’m speaking here of films like Metropolis, Blade Runner and Akira, films with such singular and original visions that they blew minds when they first debuted, and in some ways still remain fresh by the light of modern screens. This is not to say The Fifth Element ascends to that sort of cinematic pantheon, but it does provide some stunningly unique visuals that speak to the ambition, passion and imagination of its creator. And it’s a blast to watch.
Our story begins in 1914, where an archaeologist in Egypt uncovers an ancient tomb where a desperate battle was once waged. Every 5,000 years, a great and powerful evil force crosses into our universe from parts unknown bent on wiping out all life – at least on Earth, it doesn’t seem to make any other pit stops. Anyway, the archaeologist translates the ancient depiction to tell us that the only way to defeat this evil is with the four elements – air, fire, earth and water – gathered around a mysterious fifth, an ‘ultimate warrior’. No sooner are we given this exposition than the imposing but benevolent Mondoshawan aliens arrive, revealing that the four elemental stones and the warrior (in a sort of statue stasis thing) were right under the archaeologist’s nose, and now must be removed from Earth due to the oncoming World War. It’s when the movie time-skips ahead 300 years that director Luc Besson completely assaults our eye sockets in a way most would probably thank him for.
New York City, 2263. Reports are coming to Earth of a giant ball of fire impervious to damage and on a collision course. With help from a terrestrial priest, the Mondoshawan contact Earth with the intent to return the five elements to battle the incoming evil, but they are intercepted by vicious thug-like and extremely unpleasant aliens called Mangalores. All that is left is the hand of the Mondoshawan’s passenger, and through super-science, Earth technicians reconstruct the ultimate warrior, revealing it to be a beautiful if waifish humanoid who promptly escapes. Korben Dallas, played by Bruce Willis as a mix between Butch from ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a futuristic John McClane, is a retired space fighter pilot and special ops soldier making a living as a cab driver when the warrior, ‘Leeloo’, drops literally into his lap. Korben and Leeloo end up working with the priest to retrieve the elemental stones, which are also sought by malevolent arms dealer Zorg, who employed the Mangalores but isn’t really the most scrupulous of business partners. He likes to blow things up, especially people who disappoint him.
I’m starting to think there’s no role Gary Oldman can’t absolutely nail.
What we have here is indeed a mish-mash of elements. Mysticism, cyberpunk, blazing sci-fi gunplay and some generous portions of ham are all mixed up in a very colorful and boisterous way. This is a film crafted and directed with a bit of abandon, a touch of whimsy that clearly has roots in the genesis of the story, which director Luc Besson wrote when he was a teenager. When it comes to cinematography, set design and special effects, this movie not only delivers but holds up despite the way in which graphics have marched on. The aliens not only feel real, given that they’re not composed entirely of pixels, but they also seem… well, alien.
To some, the entire film might feel that way. Some people might not be able to allow the visuals to overcome some of the way the elements of the film don’t blend as smoothly as they could. Others might feel it’s a tad long in the tooth, from the first scene in Egypt to sequences like Leeloo learning about war. And I’m sure that while I found Chris Tucker’s extremely flamboyant intergalactic DJ “RUBY RHOD!” to be hilarious more often than not, some might get rubbed entirely the wrong way by him. Other characters may feel one-note, underdeveloped or just outright insufferable. Broken into individual elements, there’s a lot in The Fifth Element that has no right whatsoever to work as well as it does in the final equation. It’s an over-the-top and completely off-the-wall sci-fi pantomime, which might put it in the “Pass” column for some people.
No, no, no, Leeloo, I said ‘Pass’. Not ‘Multi-Pass’.
However, to others (including myself), that’s part of its charm. Much like Flash Gordon, the sense of camp and self-awareness that permeates The Fifth Element keeps it from being taken too seriously. And when viewed merely as a feast for the eyes and two hours of escapist fantasy fun, rather than a treatise on The Power of Love or a would-be usurper of the Star Wars juggernaut, the film reveals a sense of humor not just about itself, but the genre in general. It’s light-hearted, surprisingly quotable and unafraid to make some of its set pieces, costumes and characters downright ridiculous in the name of having a little fun.
The Fifth Element is ultimately harmless, diverting and enjoyable if you can forgive some of the rougher patches in the storytelling in terms of scene length and characterization. It doesn’t make apologies for itself in that regard, however. It’s completely committed to delivering this campy, colorful and rather unique vision of the future, which in my opinion is a nice change from the many variations on dystopia that seem to have come to dominate a large portion of the genre. There are plenty of great moments to carry a viewer from one scene to another, and many stand out in retrospect, from Zorg introducing his multi-use BFG to the Mangalores to the show-stopping Diva performance. Fans of science fiction, unique costuming, great make-up work and actors having an all-out blast with their roles could do a hell of a lot worse than The Fifth Element. Throw it on your Netflix queue and give it a look. Some might say it’s “So bad it’s good” and others claim it’s “So cool it’s awesome.” Personally, I’m one of those balls-out weirdos who happen to think it’s BOTH.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
April 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm
Great review. I’m on the side of awesome. Campiness is one of those things that films just don’t do right anymore. Even the most serious of films were always campy. A friend doesn’t like it ’cause it’s so over-the-top. It’s 2263 – let them do what they want.
Thank you for penning the line: “There was a time when an original spectacle didn’t have to count on a phrase like “You have to see it in 3-D to get the most out of it.”” Personally, I think there are some things that get acclaim simply because of what they are, not because they’re necessarily a good film. ‘Avatar’ – if it weren’t 3D, it’s really not that incredible – the story is meh at best.
Which brings me to the next point – under-appreciated actors. Gary Oldman is at the top of my list of under-appreciated actors. I agree with you 100% – I’ve never seen him in a role that he doesn’t nail. And his roles vary – greatly. Who else on this planet could play the roles of Zorg, Sirius Black (Harry Potter), Commissioner Gordon (Batman), Dracula, Mason Verger (Hanibal) and Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK). Especially Oswald…he got the mannerisms absolutely perfect. Such a versatile actor. Yet he never won a SAG or an Oscar (nor was he ever nominated for the latter).
This is a crazy world we live in.
April 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm
I love the movie since not only does it fulfill the Space Opera genre in it’s fullest but the movie keeps things rolling.
Have you seen the Ultimate Edition with the trivia tract? It’s amazing!
April 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm
I adore this movie for its audacity, and I detest it for its failure to live up to its own promise and pull it all together.
Which means that, watching the movie, I experience a very wide array of emotions. It’s like a rollercoaster of love and hate.
April 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm
D. Travis North, you forgot Oldman’s absolutely fantastic characterization of Drexl Spivy, Alabama’s pimp in True Romance. His was a character that defies adequate description.
I recall the original teasers for this film led me to think it was a more serious sci-fi along the lines of Blade Runner or Aliens. They showed next to nothing of the colorful world, just five ominously glowing monoliths with dramatic music. So when I went to see the film…I hated it. I completely hated it because my expectation was milk and I got orange juice.
Only after a friend insisted I give it a second chance did I watch it again and it was like watching a completely different movie. Amusingly it is now amongst my “rainy day” mood-lifters. There is enough meat to keep me interested, but enough color, camp and bouncy music to keep it fun.
April 23, 2010 at 4:49 pm
I’m surprised. Neither D. nor Kahl mentioned Stansfield, Gary’s character from Besson’s previous film, Léon (aka The Professional).
Norman Stansfield: Bring me everyone.
Benny: What do you mean “everyone”?
Norman Stansfield: EVERYONE.