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Film Retrospect - Summer of '97: The Fifth Element

by
May 21, 2007

Fifth ElementIt's been ten years since Luc Besson's beloved sci-fi fantasy, The Fifth Element, has graced theaters, almost as hard to believe that the film was made at all. Even with Besson's considerable reputation (he is known as "The French Steven Spielberg", mostly due to The Professional, The Big Blue and La Femme Nikita), the film must have been a tough pitch, as the story was not only a cause for massive secrecy in pre and post-production, but because of its origin. Besson has openly admitted that he first came up with the idea for the film in school… when he was 13. It makes sense if you think about it: in the distant future, a cab driver discovers that the key to the salvation of the world is a hot, female, red-headed alien (embodied on film by a Milla Jovovich). Truly, if flying cars, psychopathic villains, the end of the world and an attractive heroine who barely wears any clothing doesn't sound like the product of a teenage boy's active imagination, then what does? Somehow, Besson financed his lavish, elaborate and top-secret film, which is arguably his most personal and it made an enormous impression worldwide.

It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where the response wasn't enthusiastic (then again, nearly all of the sci-fi films that have premiered there, except for E.T., have not been accepted by the notoriously snooty, "high minded" Cannes audiences and film critics). The reviews were interesting - good or bad, every critic noted how extraordinary the film looked and how key sequences thrilled them. Most couldn't make heads or tails of the plot, with Rolling Stone saying "the plot is incoherent but the visuals are incredible". The film opened big in America, where it stayed at the #1 spot for two weeks. While it didn't recover its cost in the US, it certainly did once worldwide grosses were tallied. In addition to being a mid-size hit and a popular film here stateside, it is considered one of Besson's best and worthy of a cult classic label.

How does the film's knotty story hold up? Quite well, though it is overly complicated and film is overstuffed. As Roger Ebert wisely pointed out, some scenes appear to have been included in the film because they were expensive to shoot. The film's off-the-wall, anything goes sense of humor is both delightful (like a failed robbery on Bruce Willis' character early on) and brazenly ill considered (are we really supposed to laugh that Willis' superiors died of frost and suffocation?). Besson's 13-year-old self seems to be at the helm of the screenplay and his bold strokes amount to a fearless and frequently overwrought vision. Truly, the story would be so simple were it not for all the ample bunny trails the film takes.

Fifth Element

As for the film as a whole, it is strange, beautiful to look at and occasionally brilliant. One of my favorite parts is the bizarre opera sequence, with an alien opera diva delivering a haunting piece in front of a domed theater, with the universe outside seemingly engulfing her. It is a dreamy, unique sequence, one that Besson immediately overkills by changing the tune to a techno-pop number and interspersing a slapstick fight scene into it. If you're still with the movie at this point, you're one of those who love the brazen, in-your-face, more-is-more tone of the whole film. Those who dislike it point to this scene as the one that undoes the whole film. It's all a matter of taste, but really, the scene in question is in line with the gaudy, over-the-top nature of everything that proceeded it. Chris Tucker's character is another problem spot. His inventive work is terrific, but a little of it goes a long way. His initial scene with Willis is a dazzler but did we need Tucker to scream through the entire climactic gunfight?

The ensemble cast makes it work. Bruce Willis' effectively low-key approach gives us a real human being to root for, Gary Oldman's bizarre turn is as unhinged as his work in The Professional (though he's not in this one enough), Tucker goes overboard but this mostly works, Ian Holm is great (and it's fun to watch him act alongside Tucker and Willis) and Jovovich is excellent, making an impossible character a wild, interesting and touching creature. The action scenes are exciting, the special effects still hold up nicely, and the film, while a bit uneven, is grandly entertaining.

The summer it opened, I was working at a movie theater on Maui and would time my shifts so that I could always walk in on the film's most breathtaking sequence - when Leeloo first walks outside, on a dizzying ledge, to see the roaring city skyline rush in front of her. There are few moments in all of sci-fi cinema that are as exciting and reveal the scope of the filmmaker's imagination in one astonishing shot than that one.

Fifth Element

It must be said that not all found the film to be a true original. Even part-time movie buffs point out obvious similarities to Blade Runner and Metropolis, but fans of the cult, animated anthology film Heavy Metal are livid. It features a subplot about a future world where a cab driver (who has a flying taxi in a cityscape with flying cars) meets a hot, mysterious young woman who changes his life. The similarities to The Fifth Element end there but some have called Besson's film a rip-off. I wouldn't go that far, but I understand the argument. It is worth noting as a conversation piece, not as a factor that ruins Besson's film.

It can be said that, while not the most original, easy-to-understand or ever subtle entry in the sci-fi genre, it is one of the most thrilling. That it all came from the crazy imagination and nutty daydreams of a bored, promising, French, teenage schoolboy, is so wonderfully yet scarily perfect.

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  • Oh YES! Thannk you for writing up such a great retrospects on one of my own all-time favorite films and not dogging it! Unlike Hackers or even Starship Troopers where you'll nitpick it all day long, you gave this all the utmost respect it truly deserves. The Fifth Element has gone down in my own history as the movie that I've seen most in theaters, ever. I saw it 5 times (yes, way back in 1997) and have since tried to top that with other movies I've loved but failed. I saw Return of the King I think only 3 times, and the next closest was 300, which I saw 5 times as well. It truly has a place close to my heart for starting my own adventure into this world of cinema, and I'm glad it's still held in such high regard with others besides myself.
  • Charlie
    Great overview. I remember seeing this when I was younger in the theater, truly exciting because I had grown up on Bruce Willis and was seeing him for the first time on the big screen. I think the look of this movie still holds up today, especially the visuals, which have stood the test of time unlike other big effects movies of the time which already look dated. I'm glad you brought up Chris Tucker. Over time, I've come to accept his role in the film, but when I saw this movie originally, he got on my nerves from his first appearance, and I kept wondering with each bizarre appearance if he was supposed to be a drag queen or something, leaving me all the more confused when women swooned for him, especially one grateful stewardess.
  • Great retro-review. This movie is one of my all-time favorites, although I do agree with the items you mention above that either don't quite work or detract from the film. Vic
  • Sal
    Awesome movie, definitely one of those I have to watch a few minutes of every time it's on tv. As for the critique points- I agree... a little big of Chris tucker goes a long way. He is way over the top, but I have learned to deal with it. As for the the Blade Runner/Heavy Metal business, yeah I know what they are talking about, but I can't really say that I care. 5th Element is not a creative masterpiece, or fine cinema, it's just a solid movie.
  • I have to say that the Fifth Element is one of my all time favorite films. It had a lasting impact on me since the first time I saw it. I recall thinking that it was the 1st of a new level of films in terms of visuals and atmosphere but sadly few films have come out that brought back that feeling. The campiness did take away from the overall feel at times but not so much as to ruin the film. The music in this and The Professional (by Eric Serra - http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0785385) is simply amazing and truly puts the spit in the polish for both films.
  • Micheal
    Okay, I agree with you about the movie, as a whole... there are a few points to touch on, here. Bruce Willis's bosses didn't die in that scene where they were frozen and suffocated... Heavy Metal fans don't refer to the movie Heavy Metal. They're talking about a french comic strip that Heavy Metal features. I can't remember the artist's name, but, I DO have several of his graphic novels, published in Heavy Metal The artwork from Fifth Element, from the future city scape, to the fashions people wear, to the future tech concepts, to the basic plot lines, are HEAVILY borrowed from the comic. Personally, I don't care. I love the movie!
  • trisha
    That has been my daughters favorite movie since she was three years old. She Loves Millas' part and and grew up mimicking her as well and understood the fifth element was LOVE. It showed her how powerful one woman can be and how powerful love is as well. She watched everday for two years.( along with her teletubbies ) Her dad enjoys it. Thinks milla is sexy and I enjoyed all of the content. It is my absolute favorite. Funny in the right places...serios as well. Just plain great and way ahead of its time.
  • Enigmatic
    You HAVE to be kidding? The movie was extremely easy to follow at all times. If you couldn't follow it then you shouldn't be watching movies that were rated above PG13. Regarding the Heavy Metal similarities, after seeing this movie it immediately triggered a similarity for me (mainly because of her red hair and his demeaner and looks). But who cares if there are similarities.... Are we to compare every single "cabby saving damsel in distress" movie and call it a rip off? What about Lord of the Rings being compared to Star Wars? The plots are almost identical. So do we call one a rip off of the other? They both have a glowing blue sword, are a story about a young boy who is hunted by a great evil, who has an elderly wizard who guides and protects them while they trek across the land (galaxy) with a group of friends.

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