I hate to suggest that viewers should check their brains at the door to enjoy a movie, but I’m afraid that sentiment serves both as a warning and a recommendation where The Fifth Element is concerned.
First, the bad news. The Fifth Element is a mess. The characterizations are filmy and shallow, the action sequences hardly quicken the pulse, and the storyline is the most pedestrian brand of quasi-mystical hokum. And then, the good news. The Fifth Element is a stimulating hodgepodge. The special effects exist in their own brilliant comic book world, every new image and setting is part of an inspired collision of light and sound, and in the final analysis, this tale may be every bit as innocent and optimistic as its maker would have you believe.
I can say innocent, and you may well say naive, or even dumb. According to the pre-release hype, director Luc Besson hatched this idea when he was just a teenager. It shows. Besson’s subject is nothing less than the eons-old struggle of evil to overpower good, featuring gigantic guns and barely clad women with the whole thing set to a disco beat. Make no mistake — The Fifth Element is a $90 million art film, overcome by the tell-tale indulgences that indicate an auteur run amok. It’s a French film as well, made with some Hollywood money but kept out of the reach of meddling studio executives. That may be for better or for worse — it’s so tempting to try and imagine whether a script rewrite and a focusing of vision could have made The Fifth Element look less like an out-of-control but oh-so-stylish space opera and more like the flamboyant masterpiece that Besson was obviously aiming for.
The plodding opening scenes offer a bit of pointless exposition from the year 1914 in the service of a simplistic plotline. (Some admittedly cool-looking aliens are introduced.) Next, Besson’s story stalls out in a big way with scenes involving military vessels in deep space that are so tired I felt like I was watching Star Trek. A big volcanic mass of something, you see, is headed for our planet. We will later learn that, like that black clump in the microwave at the end of Time Bandits, it is Pure Evil. Shooting at it only makes it stronger, which puts the military over an ironic barrel that hints at the movie’s grand ambitions.
The tedium is broken when we zap back across the galaxy to “South Brooklyn,” where special-forces-retiree-cum-cab-driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is waking up to a ration of cigarettes and lonely-guy attitude. Bruce Willis has made a career out of playing an affable lug and I love him for it, but here he barely seems to know what he’s doing. Never before has he looked so mild. The high-tech gadgetry of his cramped apartment is good for a few giggles, even if the idea is a pretty direct knockoff from Brazil. (Later in the movie, a case of mistaken identity will even result in one of Korben’s neighbors getting dragged away by stormtrooper police in a very Brazilian body bag.) None of this is to carp, but only to note that The Fifth Element makes no bones about cribbing from every bit of science fiction foofaraw that’s come before it, from Metropolis to Blade Runner and beyond. To a great extent, Besson gets away with it by recognizing these trappings as foofaraw and, therefore, taking none of them seriously.
Willis is the ostensible protagonist, but we don’t really see the world through his jaded eyes. The perspective shared by filmmaker and audience is one of an innocent, overwhelmed by civilization and distraught at the notion that the whole of human history is a chronicle of war and violence. That point of view also belongs to Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a gorgeous cover girl type who’s rebuilt from a fragment of DNA found in the remains of a crashed spaceship (don’t ask). It’s not until Leeloo escapes from custody and steps out onto a ledge several hundred stories up that The Fifth Element‘s lavish and overwhelming vision of the future is revealed to us. Manhattan is a three-dimensional traffic jam, with layers upon layers of flying cars and jet taxis pushing bumper to bumper and stretching off into the unimaginable distance. Pursued by police and terrified, Leeloo dives into the traffic — and drops into the back of Korben’s cab. Chase, of course, ensues.
The rest of the story is explained in bits and pieces. Ian Holm plays a learned priest who has studied the ritual that can repel the evil invader’s assault. Brion James (Leon the replicant from Blade Runner) is fun in a secondary role, and Gary Oldman chews up the screen — with an accent and demeanor that suggest nothing more than Ross Perot — as Zorg, the most humanoid of the bad guys. He’s dealing with another, sinister race of aliens to try to get possession of the same mystical stones that are needed to save the earth. The best special effect on display may actually be Chris Tucker (most recently seen in Dead Presidents), whose outlandish but spot-on-hysterical performance as hyperactive DJ-cum-pop-star Ruby Rhod sends the latter half of the movie into even more calamitous fits.
You can look on sequences like the ones featuring Ruby, or Zorg’s James-Bond-meets-John-Woo demonstration of a particularly destructive piece of weaponry, as diversionary tactics meant to distract our attention from the fact that there’s hardly any story here. But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for an action movie that has the temerity to stop its action dead while a tubular blue diva sings a Donizetti aria on an orbiting luxury liner. The Fifth Element has a lot going for it, including a refreshing lack of Hollywood-style wisecracks and a florid sense of wonder. Like Mars Attacks!, it has the reckless feel of a movie financed by deep-pocketed corporate parents (Sony fronted $25 million) who weren’t really sure what their precocious director was up to.
But for all his visual audacity, Besson’s philosophy as demonstrated here verges on the facile. The very conclusion requires a manifestation of passion that seems unprecedented and unlikely — ah, the hazards of underdeveloped characters. Let’s just say that Leeloo has to be convinced to help save this wretched planet with considerably more aplomb than it might take simply to get her into the sack, and I don’t for a minute believe that Korben was up to either task.
If The Fifth Element falls into the trap of all-you-need-is-love dopiness, that’s head and shoulders above the dopiness that we usually get from Hollywood blockbusters. Much grumbling has been heard about the absurdity of a pouty supermodel helping save the planet — but consider that at least two recent science fiction films have featured the similar appearance of mysterious, conspicuously naked women. In Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, knockout model Mathilda May seduced men with a mere gaze before sucking their souls out through their mouths (bummer!), and in the dorky Species, knockout model Natasha Henstridge put the make on average joes before dispatching them in gruesome, tongue-through-the-skull fashion. As usual, the message seemed to be that a beautiful woman is not to be trusted, particularly if she takes her shirt off.
In contrast to those poison fables, The Fifth Element is like a vitamin. If Jovovich’s fabulous babe is an equally naive product of Besson’s imagination, perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt and consider it hopelessly romantic rather than childish. Korben has found the most beautiful woman on the planet, and wants to embrace her, care for her, and help give meaning to her life (and his). In the course of his caring for her, they save the world. As $90 million adolescent fantasies go, this is a hell of a lot less destructive than most.