Screwball Sci-fi in The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (1997) is a mixed bag of a movie: it has a lot to offer, but it’s very strangely packaged, and there’s a lot of extraneous fluff. It bounces back and forth between the self-serious heroism and romance that constitute its weaker parts, and the free-floating punk/screwball sensibility that makes it unique. Reportedly, Besson began writing the screenplay while he was in high school, and it shows in the convoluted mythology and the derivative, somewhat generic structure and conflicts of the film’s futuristic universe.

However, the film also has some moments of odd beauty and very satisfying comedy, plus one-of-a-kind visual design by two French artists – Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières – who had been featured in Métal Hurlant, the predecessor to America’s Heavy Metal. At its best, The Fifth Element possesses some of the same traits that made Heavy Metal so great: a rich, bawdy sense of humor; a national and cultural eclecticism; and a willingness to tweak age-old sci-fi tropes in new ways. Overall, it’s not really successful, but it hits some great peaks along the way.

The plot of The Fifth Element is anything but simple, concerned as it is with at least 4-5 different self-interested factions each seeking the same set of four elemental stones. According to a sketched-out secret history wherein aliens occasionally visit Egypt, a “Great Evil” threatens earth every 5,000 years, and only an ultimate weapon made up of all five elements can save it. (The title is dropped with a resounding thud at least six times during the prologue.) Long story short: taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has to shepherd the fifth-element-in-physical form, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to a resort planet to fetch the stones.

They’re aided by a bungling high priest (Ian Holm) and a hyperactive radio super-personality (Chris Tucker). They’re opposed by a band of extraterrestrial mercenaries as well as their erstwhile employer, a nutty plutocrat named Zorg, played with a strangely southern accent and the world’s weirdest haircut by the great Gary Oldman. Yeah, it really is “that kind of movie.” Brion James (Blade Runner‘s Leon) is there as the earth general who recruits Dallas; even La Haine director and Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz shows up as a jittery would-be mugger.

This is not a subtle movie. When Willis and Jovovich are giving the most restrained performances, you know you’re in dangerous territory. The Fifth Element is basically a live-action cartoon in the Looney Tunes mold, with all the visual hyperbole and frenetic action that entails. When Holm’s priest is startled, he literally topples over backwards – as sure as if he’d been Elmer Fudd whacked with a mallet. Oldman and Tucker (the latter especially) are both completely unhinged, madly overacting in a curiously compelling way. If nothing else, Tucker’s mile-a-minute spiel and proto-Gaga costumes are unlikely to be matched by any other movie – and his performance is almost plausible as a 23rd century media personality.

Clearly, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for cartoon physics and outrageously quirky acting. Oldman and Tucker also tread the very thin line between “eccentric” and “grating,” and Tucker occasionally, if fearlessly, crosses over it. Similarly, the movie’s frames are very cluttered; in Besson’s quasi-dystopian future, there’s always something going on, be it in the costuming, set design, or special effects. Some of this busyness can be delightful, while other components are less endearing. All of it, to varying degrees, is ridiculous.

With all of these oddball characters floating around, The Fifth Element does have some truly funny scenes (e.g., “Multipass?”) that end up playing out like a Star Wars spoof crossed with Bringing Up Baby. (Holm, who played another [less benevolent] advisor in Alien, could pass for a neurotic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) By the time we’re watching a blue-skinned, tentacle-headed diva sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, the movie has almost found profundity in its genre-splicing, special-effects-filled surface.

So the real shame is the ending: it goes on far too long, it loses the raw, funny edge, and it devolves into a meaningless last-minute lecture on the evils of war and the power of love; it even begins to take its nonsensical back story seriously. It’s really disappointing when a movie’s epic climax turns out to be surprisingly rote and anticlimactic. But you know what? The Fifth Element is still better than Total Recall and a lot of other planet-hopping movies of that ilk. It’s still got all of Besson’s loony characters running into each other, wearing impractically garish outfits while North Africa-influenced techno plays in the background.

In short: at least it’s still interesting. It may not be an especially smart or consistent movie, but I’ll take Besson’s brand of colorful, multinational, imaginative sci-fi over the tedious sameness of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay anyday. And the weird, loaded cast doesn’t hurt, either. So, is The Fifth Element really a “good” movie? Not as such. But it’s still highly enjoyable and even a little bit stylistically subversive. What do you think? Have you seen the movie, or do you want to?

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