I don’t know how many time I’ve actually seen The Fifth Element, but I do know it’s been a lot. Like, a ridiculous amount. I feel pretty safe saying that I have seen Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element at the very least 80 times. That’s a lot. That’s 10,080 minutes; That’s 168 hours; That’s fucking ridiculous. I am a ridiculous person. Granted, that’s an approximation, as I wasn’t keeping a tally throughout my life, but that’s because I was too busy watching, apparently. Yeah, I know that nowadays it’s fashionable to brag about how long you’ve spent with something, like videogames or movies/TV shows, but at the time it just kind of made you a weird kid. It wasn’t “cool,” it was “Why are you watching that again? Go outside.” It’s kind of a weird movie to be obsessed with, honestly. It was somewhat of a flop when it came out, well relative to budget, I suppose, but for some reason it sunk it’s live-action-cartoon hooks into me from the word go.
I was almost eleven years old when it came out. My household was a big action/sci-fi/horror space, and, thanks to my father, I had been watching inappropriate “for my age” flicks since I could hold some semblance of a conversation. You see, my Dad was kind of a secret nerd. Most of his peer group just wasn’t into genre stuff in the same way he was. Back in those days people were not as into things like lore and story speculation; conversations, beyond how awesome or cool something was, weren’t the norm for the average person. It wasn’t like it is today, when you can’t really even talk to the most passive movie fan without talking about genre stuff. It’s become ubiquitous, and understood, because it’s the dominate mode for movies. That’s why it was so crazy back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when X-Men and Spider-Man were such big hits. Up to that point it was pretty unfathomable that movies like that would come out, or be good without caveat, never mind actually being popular. So, my Dad was excited to share his passions with someone, and, me being his first and oldest son, I fit that bill pretty well. But we didn’t just watch the movies, we talked about them almost endlessly; discussing plot and themes, conversations that most young children wouldn’t normally be having. It’s some of the most formative material that I experienced as a young kid, and, for better or worse, it sent me down the path I’m on today. Being an intellectually bent nerd.
By the time The Fifth Element came out in 1997, I was some kind of mini genre expert, or so I would’ve liked to think. I mean, I was an expert in so much an eleven year old can be an expert at anything. I mean, relative to other eleven year old kids I was, because most little kids weren’t raised on a cinema diet consisting of The Terminator, Alien, and RoboCop. Yeah, time was made for Sesame Street and the like, but whenever Saturday nights would roll around I became an acolyte of the VCR, my father acting as it’s deacon, and I was always prepped and ready for a new visual sermon.
I can’t remember why I was so drawn to this movie at the time, so much memory fog in the proceeding years, but if I were to guess I would probably point to the world building, or, more aptly, the universe building in the movie. Even though there is a ton of stuff to absorb it’s always presented in an understated and succinct way. The movie allows the visual bombast to tell you about it without a single line of dialogue, which makes sense. Whenever a movie relies on exposition dumping to explain things about it’s world, that are ultimately inconsequential to the plot, it can really feel like a drag and often bogs down the experience, especially when it comes to propulsive action/sci-fi. Anytime you have to stop a movie like this to explain how something like hover boots work(Lookin’ at you, Jupiter Ascending. The more I think about that movie, the more I realize that it’s a shitty version of The Fifth Element, in terms of scope and the type of story it wants to tell.), even though we could probably just suspend our disbelief and accept that, yes, these boots do in fact allow a person to hover. The instances where the movie does engage in the world building exposition is always with the aim to contextualize things for the characters, and by that I mean our understanding of them. Even though there’s a lot of action and set-pieces in the movie, it understands that character is key.
There’s a few succinct examples of what I’m talking about in the movie. When we’re first introduced to Bruce Willis’ character, Corben Dallas(This is my favorite character name, mayber, ever. Well aside from Keanu Reeves’ character from Point Break, Johnny Utah.), during a phone conversation with his boss they allude to the driver points system that exists in that world. Granted, it’s not a blunt-full stop piece of exposition, they roll it into dialogue that reassures the audience that “You’re damn right that’s Bruce Willis pretty much just playing Bruce Willis!” So, that’s always comforting. It’s the little things, you know? Anyways, moving on… This information acts as character clues, everything that Dallas does after this information is doled out has framed him as a reckless person, and frames his saving of Leeloo in a different light, because he saves her to his own professional detriment. Another way to put it would be he’s a badass with a heart of gold. Solid gold. It’s very similar to the way we’re introduced to Han Solo in the original Star Wars, as he’s describing the Millennium Falcon. All of the parsec, Kessel run, and light speed talk serves to inform you about his character. The Falcon is just a ship, it’s what he does with it that matters, and it acts as an extension of his person. It’s just smart, understated character/world building.
The bright and beautiful world is the backdrop for a kind of mythic fairy tale that’s steeped in archetypes. Reluctant heroes, an unlikely Christ figure, true believers, and the amorphous nature of evil are our characters. It’s a grand sci-fi fantasy adventure, an amalgamation of every story you’ve ever seen, heard, or read. It’s smart because of how crazy and unique all the trappings are, we kind of already know the broad strokes of the story, so it keeps it from ever feeling overwhelming or confusing. It goes down pretty smooth all things considered.
It’s such a basic plot, a really simple and straightforward tale. It’s the oldest story, really. Good versus evil. Light versus darkness. Life versus death. The villain, the main threat of this movie, is literally a planet sized ball of evil that’s moving it’s way through the galaxy, known only as the ominous sounding Mr. Shadow. That’s not to say that this ball of evil doesn’t have a personality, though, and his corporeal agent, his earthbound mouthpiece is named Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. Oh, he’s played by Gary Fucking Oldman, by the way. He’s kind of great.
There was an odd trifecta of performances that solidified me as a life long Gary Oldman fan. Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the pimp, Drexl Spivey, from True Romance, and, obviously, Zorg from The Fifth Element. The guy is such a consummate performer. I remember watching those movies as a kid and being blown away by the fact that all of these colorful, and incredibly diverse, characters were all performed by the same person. His range is incredible, and he’s totally on my patented “go gay” list, his placement on the list currently stands at number 2, only being slightly edged out from the number 1 spot by David Bowie. Although, I’m sure he’s honored just by being considered, cracking that coveted “Top 5.”(Well, I’m glad we could clear the air up in here, yo. Like, for serious. You know what it means if this made you uncomfortable, right? Yeah, you know, dog. You know. We all know. Twitter told me so.)
Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg is the face evil corporate interests, which is what the movie posits as the antithesis of good. He schemes and plots, sells guns to terrorist, humanoid muppets that mindlessly want to destroy things in a misguided attempt to attain glory. He is the opposite of the natural. Even his person is slightly augmented, he has some kind of robotic leg, and his clothing seems to be made exclusively made of some type of shiny plastic. He is the personification of materialism and excess, basically an amalgamation of class identifiers of the upper crust from the 1980’s. I guess you could include Chris Tucker’s character, Ruby Rhod, in with that last bit. The difference being he’s just a pawn in an over-saturated, narcissistic world, and not one of the causes of it.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the naturalists; the true believers; the clergy. Superficially, these folks resemble monks from some sect of Catholicism, the main difference being that they don’t really worship anything per se, it’s more that they act in service to greater beings, a benevolent, ancient alien race that is pretty much just as amorphous as the giant ball of evil that it stands against. Everything in this movie that concerns the actual plot is incredibly broad and non-specific, and that’s not really a bad thing in this case. Like I said before, it’s a very stayed story, you get it without it having to be explained to you. It’s nice, in a way, as this is a trap a lot of high concept movies fall into. It’s world is complex, but it’s story is not.
Well, that was a lot of positive stuff! I am now going to attempt to be a little more objective about the movie. It’s hard though, as my feelings about the movie are very closely tied to memories of my youth, and having seen it so many times. The things that might bother someone seeing it for the first time wash right over me at this point.
The Fifth Element is a tonal mess, not quite a disaster or anything, but definitely a mess. It goes back and forth from fun action movie to childish comedy at a pace that could cause whiplash. It’s really all over the place. There’s kind of a “point of no return” that takes place about mid-way through the movie, when our heroes make their way to Fhloston Paradise, a space cruise, I guess you could call it. The entire sequence is almost a straight up extended comedy bit, and while the movie had some “silly” moments up to that point it always managed to balance the disparate tones. It’s a movie that’s stuffed to the gills with content, and here they stuff in even more, the difference is that all of the new things that come into play don’t really matter all that much, and, more often than not, is just used to set-up throw away jokes.
Chris Tucker pretty much personifies everything that I’m talking about. He’s a completely superfluous character, that has very little baring on the plot, and is completely ineffectual in all of his actions. Now, to be fair, there is an argument to be made for Ruby Rhod. It’s to add more variety to the party, and to make it more of a vertical slice of humanity. Mr. Shadow and his desire for the destruction of the planet effects everyone, not just those immediately involved. So, his inclusion isn’t necessarily a problem, but maybe his prominence in the last third of the movie is. He sucks up a lot of screen time, and that’s kind of a testament to Tuckers performance, because he demands that you pay attention to him, which makes it even more apparent and unfortunate that he doesn’t really do anything of consequence, and leaves you wishing that he was utilized better, because he’s really great in the movie. Ruby Rhod is simultaneously everything that’s great about The Fifth Element and everything that’s wrong about it.
Just as Ruby Rhod is a fun, but somewhat unnecessary character, so is Zorg. Now, I know this may sound completely contradictory to what I said about the character before, but, in all reality, you could almost completely remove him and it wouldn’t actually effect the plot all that much. You could take the few things he does and just move those actions over to the Mangalores, the humanoid muppet things I mentioned earlier. The only character that even is aware of his existence is Father Cornelius, that’s it. Leeloo and Dallas have no idea that he exists, really. I mean, they’re not even told about him, and the only time any of them share a scene is when Leeloo is hiding in the ceiling of a hotel room and Zorg shooting at her. His function is more one of adding some texture and for some fun jokes, that’s pretty much it.
Actually, removing him from the story and adding some more importance to the Mangalores would be a more poignant statement. It would add some subtext about the nature of Mr. Shadow, as an entity that feeds off of what’s already there: those that wish to destroy. It’s an idea that doesn’t require an embodiment, and instead could have embraced an idea of natural chaos, treating the Mangalores as a race that’s developed it the war mongers that they are. Almost as if Mr. Shadow had planted these seeds a long time ago, and is now ready to utilize them without ever having to lift a finger. You know, kind of like how actual “evil” works in reality.
Another element of the film’s makeup that could be seen as odd, or out of place, is the film’s score. It often dips into these synthesized “super silly” comedy stingers, and sometimes can feel at odds with the scenes in the movie. That’s not to say that comedy beats are unwarranted, no, it’s just how corny they are. They feel like relics from an older time, like the 80’s, or something from a low-budget, cable science fiction movie. As someone that grew up watching that kind of stuff it’s not that big a deal, but even today it still sticks out like a sore thumb. Well, pretty much the entire score feels off, but the “silly” beats stick out even more due to what it’s juxtaposed with.
When the movie calls for a more serious tone, the score puts off a new wave, adult-contemporary vibe that engenders giggles instead of drama. Just like the comedy stuff, it feels antiquated, even for a movie that came out in 1997. Though, when it comes to the work of the director, Luc Besson, it pretty much par for the course. Compare this movies score to that of La Femme Nikita, or even Leon: The Professional, and you can see that his “tastes” hadn’t really evolved all that much. Even his most recent movie, Lucy, still has trace elements of his penchant for this type of scoring. Honestly, it probably has more to do with his age than anything, as “adult contemporary” scores were pretty commonly employed in his heyday. It was hip and happening, kids! Or maybe it was just the eighties and early nineties.
The Fifth Element is a simple story that has a lot of superfluous stuff in it, and for everything that it does right in terms of world building, it kind of gets wrong in the way it tells it’s story. It relies too much on inconsequential characters, and as a result gives the main characters less to do, in a way. There’s a lot of things, and information given, that could have easily been accomplished by the main cast, which also could have been used to enrich them a little bit more, it could have moved them a little further away from their archetypal nature, and “humanized” them further.
Having said all that, I unabashedly love The Fifth Element. Sure, it’s not perfect. It can be a total mess at times, but compare it to some contemporary high-concept, original flicks. Well, on the odd occasion one of those actual is able to get made(Again, fucking Jupiter Ascending. I fear that the Wachowskis have ruined this kind of film making, at least for a few years.). It fairs pretty well, in my opinion, and even though the story is a little rote, the wrapping is interesting, fun, and original in the way that it borrows almost everything genre that had been put to celluloid up to that point. The grandest amalgamation; a charming concoction, that’s main priority is having a good time. You don’t have to turn your brain off all the way for this one, but going half mast, brain function wise, may not be a terrible idea. Although, if you have the notion to watch it, I don’t know, say 80 times or something, there’s a lot to think about. Honestly, I might just go ahead and write a short book about this movie. Amazon’s self publishing, here I come! I should probably find an editor, though!