The Fifth Element

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Every five minutes a bomb or something! I'm leaving!

It has been billed as "Star Wars for the Nineties", but nothing could be further from the truth (they said the same thing about "Independence Day"). To call a film "Star Wars of the whatever", it must challenge the status quo of the genre and set it off in new directions. Fifteen years ago (1982), the science fiction fan was offered with "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (the best film of the Star Trek franchise), the dual Steven Spielberg offerings of "Poltergeist" and "E.T.", the paranoid horror of "The Thing", and the film that helped define the cyberpunk-dystopia, "Blade Runner". Now, in 1997, how far have we evolved? Intelligent story-telling has given way to the recycling of the creatively bankrupt paradigms of the halcyon days of science-fiction. The importance of thought-provoking reflection on the human condition has stepped aside for the studio-based marketing and merchandising machine as the basis for green-lighting film properties for production. And this is the case with "The Fifth Element".

Luc Besson, the thirty-seven year-old French action director, has built himself quite a portfolio with films that blend imaginative action sequences with quirky humor and melodramatic pathos. "The Fifth Element" continues this trend, with a story that he gradually developed over the past twenty-one years. "The Fifth Element" is the first-half of this story, and the other half (titled "Mr. Shadow") is scheduled for production in the near future. It is a story about the battle of good and evil that borrows elements from other sci-fi and genre films.

The movie begins in Egypt in 1914, where an archeologist and his assistant (Luke Perry) make an astounding discovery about the combination of the four classical Greek elements (fire, earth, air, water) and a mysterious fifth element to form a weapon of awesome destructive power ("Stargate").

Listen lady... I only speak two languages: English and BAD English.

The story then jumps to a planetary alignment in our solar system. It is 2259 and a large Earth spaceship watches a giant planet take form at the point of intersection. Of course, they try to destroy it, only to discover that it is indestructible and will soon destroy the Earth ("Star Wars"). A spaceship from an alien government is sent to help out, but is shot down before it can reach the Earth. Only a single cell remains of the pilot, and from this genetic material, the being is reconstructed in the form of Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a genetically perfect female human, who promptly escapes from her holding chamber ("Species"). Cut to New York, where Corbin Dallas (Bruce Willis) is waking up to another crappy day as a cab driver in the retro-future Big Apple, with its crowded thoroughfares of flying cars and mile-high skyscrapers (production design combining elements from both "Metropolis" and "Blade Runner"). Leeloo, having escaped from the lab, literally lands in Corbin's lap. Corbin helps her escape from the authoritarian police force ("Judge Dredd" or "Brazil"). Barely understanding her alien gibberish, Corbin manages to deliver her to the hands of a priest (Ian Holm) who recognizes her for what she is. She is on a mission to gather the keys corresponding to the four elements which must be delivered to Egypt before the evil force in space can destroy the Earth. Unfortunately, an evil industrialist, Zorg (Gary Oldman), working under the mysterious Mr. Shadow, is after the same thing. And so Corbin and Leeloo head off to a remote planet to rendezvous with an opera singer who can help them. And along the way, Leeloo gradually learns English and what it means to be human ("Species"), with the occasional lapse into fully-automatic-clip-burning-spasms-of-visceral-violence (any John Woo movie) aboard a space luxury liner after it is taken over by hostile forces ("Die Hard"). But luckily, Leeloo has learned martial arts by surfing the internet (any Jackie Chan movie). It even ends with a commentary on the dichotomous capability of humanity to both destroy and accomplish good (any Star Trek episode).

Elements common to Besson's previous outings are found in "The Fifth Element". The fascination with guns and wild pyrotechnic gunplay. The re-telling of "Pygmalion", only with a feral wild-child being transformed into an emotional and vulnerable being, and touching the heart of her world-weary teacher in the process (the key element in "La Femme Nikita" and "The Professional").

The acting occupies both ends of the spectrum, from believable (Willis, Jovovich, Holm) to crass (everyone else, especially the stilted performances by everyone in the President's briefing room). Humor is prevalent in this film, accentuated by the use of juxtapositional cut-scenes. In terms of the plot, after having watched the film, you will notice that the opening sequence in Egypt really makes no sense-- hopefully this was not a plot hole and will be explained in the sequel. The directing is competent, though purely functional, except for one interesting scene in which the performance of an alien opera singer is used as a counterpoint to Leeloo kicking alien butt. However, one aspect that deserves credit is the expansive production design, costume design, and visual effects by Digital Domain. The film cost $90 million to put together, and you can see it on the screen. From the 'streets' of New York to the atrium on a space luxury liner, "The Fifth Element" does at least achieve one goal of good science-fiction: to suspend disbelief and show you what you have never seen before.

If you are expecting ground-breaking science-fiction, you are better to look elsewhere. But if you want to be carried away to another reality for a couple of hours and have a few laughs, then this is your movie.

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