Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Fifth Element

Grade : A Year : 1997 Director : Luc Besson Running Time : 2hr 6min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

“The Fifth Element” is one of the most whacked-out summer blockbusters of all-time. From the mind of a 16-year-old Luc Besson, “The Fifth Element” is big, broad, colorful and action-packed. That $90 million was put into it in 1997 is actually kind of remarkable, given Besson’s best known films, at the time, were grounded thrillers like “Leon” and “La Femme Nikita.” It’s now probably one of the few summer movies that can be considered a bona-fide cult classic, as its polarizing tone and narrative endures as a surreal tonic to the traditional American action formula it gleefully pillars for its structure.

The script by Besson and his frequent writing partner, Robert Mark Kamen, sets up its good-vs-evil narrative in the first few minutes, with an archeological expedition in 1914 Egypt unlocking a mystery only a cabal of priests and an alien race known as the Mondoshawans understand, a weapon to fight off great evil that appears every 5000 years. The weapon consists of four stones, each related to one of the classical elements (earth, wind, fire, water) and a sarcophagus with the fifth element, a human. The Mondoshawans arrive on Earth to retrieve the weapon, just as it is about to be discovered, and remove it from Earth, which is about to endure World War I, until it is needed in 300 years. Cut to 300 years later, and the evil, in the form of a giant ball of fire, is on Earth’s doorstep. A spaceship fires on it, but gets destroyed as it absorbs the energy from the attack, getting bigger. The Mondoshawans are on their way back with the weapon, and their current contact on Earth, priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), convinces the President of the Federated Territories (Tommy “Tiny” Lister), to let them through, although they are attacked by a race called the Mangalores, who are working for an industrialist named Zorg (Gary Oldman), and their ship is destroyed. There is a survivor, however- the fifth element, or part of it anyway, which is reconstructed into the form of Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who is scared and escapes, taking a dive into the back seat of a former military man-turned-taxi driver, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), who will find himself in the middle of this battle to save the world.

There’s a lot more to the story Besson and Kamen wrote than just the setup, but I’d like to focus on the tone he creates within the film. There’s some truly off-the-wall comedy in this film, along with a villain performance by Oldman that feels like a method interpretation of Foghorn Leghorn as a sociopath, and even for someone who enjoys the film like I do, it can feel disarming. We’re a few steps away, at times, from what I call Michael Bay’s “idiot humor,” which is willfully stupid and silly, regardless of how serious the film is supposed to be, but the more one comes back to “The Fifth Element,” the more the film works. There’s a lot of silliness in this film, along with Chris Tucker’s obnoxious radio host, Ruby Rhod, who, somehow, becomes a big part of the storyline, but Besson balances the film well by diving straight into the lunacy he’s created. (It’s something that also worked well in 2014’s “Lucy.”) Besson knows what he’s creating is nuts to watch, but that’s a big part of the fun for him, and it becomes fun for us. Every part of the technical team, from the costume and production designers to cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and the visual effects artists who had to imagine Besson’s bold universe to even Besson’s frequent composer, Eric Serra, who creates some terrific dramatic music (Leeloo’s theme, the action scene underscore) but also has an odd twist to it that makes it a piece with what we’re watching onscreen. Rather than the dark, postapocalyptic world of a “Blade Runner,” Besson gives us a brightly colored, boldly-textured world to become immersed in, which makes the absurdist tone feel that much more in keeping with the film, although it’s understandable that people might’ve been unsure about it at the time.

I don’t think there has been a time in the past two decades where I disliked “The Fifth Element.” When it came out in 1997, it was a fun early-summer blockbuster which showed a lot of imagination and wild visuals, even if Oldman and Tucker really grated on me. Now, I appreciate the way Oldman and Tucker’s performances play into the tone Besson establishes. This feels like the type of fantasy a 16-year-old inspired by “Star Wars” would make, and indeed, that’s basically what it is, with imaginative characters, rogue heroes (and, though I haven’t mentioned him, it should be said that Willis is perfect as the lead in this film), damsels in distress (although Jovovich’s Leeloo, who is possibly one of my favorite sci-fi movie heroines ever, handles herself well when she needs to) and images that no filmgoer will forget. This is a film that deserves its status as one of the gems of the 1997 summer, and the year, in general.

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