Film Retrospect - Summer of '97: The Fifth Element
by Barry Wurst
May 21, 2007
It'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.
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.
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.