Over the past few weeks there was massive upheaval in my house as we re-did the front yard and moved two rooms around. The finishing touch on what has become the Grown-Up Chill Room was the materialisation of a gigantic HD television set, a thing of such majestic beauty it is impossible to do justice in words. But what better way to christen such a piece of hardware than with our family’s cult favourite, The Fifth Element?
A French production directed by Luc Besson, The Fifth Element tells the story of what could be the Earth’s final days during the 23rd century, unless a mysterious and alien fifth element can be found and reunited with the other four elements on earth (wind, fire, earth, and water) to send an unstoppable evil back into the depths of space. When this element is tracked down after being removed from the earth in 1914, it manifests as a naive and loveably cute woman, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who promptly dives through a wall, eventually crashing through the roof of Korben Dallas’s (Bruce Willis) flying NYC cab. He takes her in, tracks down Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) whose order was entrusted years ago with the secret of the Fifth Element, and eventually ends up on a chase across space in pursuit of the four element stones while being chased by evil businessman and agent for the ultimate evil, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (an unrecognisable Gary Oldman). Along the way Korben picks up the ridiculous radio personality Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), and encounters intergalactic singing sensation Diva Plavalaguna, and helps Leeloo come to terms with what she has to do and why she must do it. Sounds convoluted? It kind of is!
When it was initially released in 1997, The Fifth Element polarised critics but ended up being a massive box office success. It’s pretty easy to see why – thematically, it doesn’t have a lot going on (even the director admits this), but it’s full of great special effects, brilliant acting performances, and quite an engaging story.
Bruce Willis once again plays a straight man to some insane circumstance, and with the whole film often resting on his shoulders, he carries it very well. Nobody delivers a sarcastic rebuke like Willis, and much of the film’s comedy comes from his fish-out-of-water approach to Korben Dallas. Jovovich, despite her character’s initial naivety, is able to bring a bit of loveable sass and attitude to a role which could very much have been tediously irritating. She has impressive comic timing and seems to have a great chemistry with Bruce Willis.
I’m a big fan of Gary Oldman – a man who typically brings an understated grace to his performances – but here, he plays totally against type as the maniacal Zorg. Zorg’s smooth Texan drawl is juxtaposed against his ruthless methods, and Oldman overplays it to create a particularly striking character. Ian Holm’s priest is cowardly, but also endearingly clumsy. Of particular note, however, is Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod. Essentially a logical evolution of Tucker’s character in the Rush Hour series, Rhod’s entire characterisation is pushed to the point where pretty much everything he says is hysterically funny. Thanks to Rhod, the tension of the penultimate scene is welcomely and swiftly defused by his sudden and disgruntled departure.
Visually, the film puts an interesting spin on the dirty dystopian future of contemporary sci-fi. Besson deliberately set most of the scenes in daylight so as to avoid the dimly lit, dingy look of so many 23rd centuries – though very different to that of Star Trek! New York is still grungy, but the light does really help it make seem much more liveable. Kudos to the production crew who blended a physical New York seamlessly with CGI flying cars to produce some captivating futurism. The costume designs of Jean Paul Gaultier are unsurprisingly weird, but the glam aesthetic of the film at large just makes it all seem totally normal. Eric Serra’s lush and melodic score, which underlays 90% of the film, also helps proceedings bounce along. The score, rather than being invasive, creates as much atmosphere as any of the visual elements at any given moment.
If you do decide to sit down to watch The Fifth Element, go in with no expectations, and don’t try to predict where it will go – just let it take you, and see what happens. It’s a fun movie, with a great cast. You really can’t go wrong.
Apologies to anyone who received a notification for this one yesterday, by the way – I was trying out the “improved posting experience” and accidentally hit Publish.