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THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Have 20 Years Been Kind To Luc Besson’s Schizophrenic Sci-fi?

The Fifth Element 20 years later: it's still the packed with resplendent imagery, inventive art direction, and some well edited set pieces.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Have 20 Years Been Kind To Luc Besson's Schizophrenic Sci-fi?

I can still smell the popcorn…

It was the Summer of 1997, and the newly opened multiplex was beckoning. On the agenda was the latest from a European director whose previous picture had been both a critical and box office success. His new picture featured one of the biggest action stars on the planet and the trailer promised flying cars, large explosions, intergalactic species facing off against one and other and Gary Oldman with weird teeth. It’s fair to say that anticipation levels were high, and not without good reason.

20 years later and science fiction cinema is just as multifaceted as it ever was

A genre revitalised in the 70’s by George Lucas, there has always been a very significant split in how such filmmaking is perceived. There are the grand, effects-driven spectaculars such as Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Starship Troopers, Star Trek and many  other films that include the word ‘star’ somewhere in the title. Then there are the more cerebral, thought provoking pictures, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Interstellar, to name but a few.

Indeed, sci-fi has been comfortably imbedded within cinema history for the majority of its 100 plus year existence, the medium being perfectly suited to its big ideas and even bigger flying objects. Let’s face it, there are few genres  in which a character can swing a light sword around as if they were swatting away a fly (intergalactic or otherwise), and there are even fewer in which an oil driller can save our planet from a chunk of space rock so big that it requires the assistance of Ben Affleck’s jawbone and the guy from Sling Blade.

All of which neatly brings us to Bruce Willis.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Have 20 Years Been Kind To Luc Besson's Schizophrenic Sci-fi?

source: Columbia Pictures

I’ve always felt there were certain rules when it came to Bruce Willis. For example, if he’s wearing a vest, the film is generally good (Die Hard). However, if he has hair, the film tends to be awful (Striking Distance). Then there are those odd hybrids, in which he has no hair at all, that oddly turn out to be masterpieces (Pulp Fiction). And then, there is The Fifth Element, in which he has both hair and a vest. An orange one. I mention this not to be flippant, I hasten to add, for there are few films as obsessed with aesthetics as Luc Besson’s picture, and few vests as impressive as a Jean Paul Gaultier vest.

It’s just that 20 years since its initial release, I still have that niggling feeling that somewhere, buried deep inside an editing room, in Paris, is the truly magnificent film that The Fifth Element should be.

Co-written and directed by Besson, The Fifth Element had been rattling inside the film maker’s brain for most of his life, at that point. He started writing a version of the story when he was sixteen years old, taking inspiration from the comic book writers Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mezieres, both of whom would come on board as production designers.

It is perhaps this reverence, and childlike sense of wonder, that make The Fifth Element such a giddy experience to watch, this particular space opera feeling a little as if the neon drenched dystopias of Blade Runner had been jammed into a washing machine filled with children’s crayons and then put on a spin cycle.

Comic book charm and some truly magnificent ideas

Not that this makes it a bad film, mind you. Packed with resplendent imagery, inventive art direction, some extremely well edited set pieces and Willis at his most endearing. Indeed, he smiles for a large portion of this picture, clearly having a ball in this fully realised playground of large space ships and even larger guns, or, possibly because he had seen his pay cheque. The film has a comic book charm and some truly magnificent ideas at its heart.

In fact, heart isn’t the problem. The plot is surprisingly complex, dealing with both ancient Egyptian legend and the building blocks of life itself. Beginning in 1914, the film has an alien race commandeering four stones that contain the energy of the Elements that make up life on our planet: Earth, Air, Water, Fire. They also make off with a sarcophagus containing a Fifth Element in the form of a human (and probably some gasoline for their spaceship, while they’re at it). It is this Fifth element that provides the film’s plot thrust.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Have 20 Years Been Kind To Luc Besson's Schizophrenic Sci-fi?

source: Columbia Pictures

The aliens promise mankind that they will return when Earth is threatened by ‘Great Evil.’ It’s nicely non-specific, but, fast forward a few thousand years, and it would appear that they were talking about a large ball of black fire, that looks a little as if it rolled off of a heavy metal album cover and headed straight for Earth. Anyway, as promised, the aliens return, only to be ambushed by a thick slice of nemesis known as Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), whose villainy is so vast that he is in cahoots with the ‘Great Evil’ and intent on capturing the four stones at whatever cost necessary.

The stones, however, allude him, as does the Fifth Element, or what’s left of it, and thanks to some genetic hocus pocus, mankind manages to pull something of a Jurassic Park on the narrative, and recreates the Fifth Element’s human form. Which turns out to look like Milla Jovovich. Which, lets face it, is probably not what anyone would expect the saviour of our planet to look like, but at least she can jump out of high buildings, which is exactly what she does here, landing in the back seat of cab driver Korben Dallas (Willis).

Besson’s audience

This, by the way, all takes place within the film’s first thirty minutes or so, which gives you some idea as to how fast paced the whole endeavour is. In fact, Besson’s biggest hat trick here is that the audience stays with him at all. Of course, science fiction has a long history of flamboyance. Star Wars took Arthurian legend and gave it a nice 70’s swagger, while anyone familiar with Barbarella will note the shrewd satire of 60’s counter culture hiding beneath all the fabulous outfits and the image of Jane Fonda engaged in a zero gravity striptease.

What Besson brings to the table is an interest in past mythology, nicely coupled with our uncertain future. Conflict has always played a part in his pictures, from the divers in The Big Blue, to Joan Of Arc in Joan Of Arc, French history particularly rife with war and protest. The Fifth Element has conflict aplenty, between Governments and Civilians. In fact, it has a little too much of it, making for a messy muddle of metaphorical mayhem.

Cat and mouse stuff

It’s bold filmmaking, almost to be admired, as the film settles into its second act, and Korben ends up on the lamb with the Fifth Element, who we learn is actually named Leeloo. It’s cat and mouse stuff, with the characters running from set piece to set piece, encountering any number of creatures and attempting to stay one step ahead of Zorg, his army and his ridiculous haircut.

Oldman relishes every single moment here, playing Zorg as a combination of desperate car salesman and sleazy politician, complete with a bizarre South Georgia accent, but you can’t help feeling as if he’s dialling it in a little, a feeling not helped by how little screen time he actually gets. Then again, when your Big Bad is the size of a planet, all the twitching and screaming in the world couldn’t dream of competing, although Oldman, to his credit, gives it his best shot.

Indeed, the film’s biggest problem is its third act. Our heroes, having gone through the motions of jumping and dodging any number of obstacles, flying or otherwise, find themselves brought to a screeching (literally) halt by the introduction of Ruby Rhod, an intergalactic DJ who fundamentally destroys both the film’s momentum and its tone.

As played by Chris Tucker, Rhod has no function when it comes to the plot (something even Jar Jar Binks could use in his defence, and that’s possibly the most savage criticism I have ever given of a character), he merely tags along, screeching like a child that has just been wrenched from its parents for the first time, only with less articulation. The impact this has on the picture is detrimental. Sitting in that movie theatre back in ’97, I was immediately struck by a notion: If a box full of broken glass had been available, next to the popcorn and skittles, then I would have gladly spent the last 30 minutes of this film, chewing on it.

Breaking point

Ultimately, the film never recovers from this point, a little as if somebody took a snow globe and shook it until the porcelain reindeer, contained inside, broke. It’s a real shame, as the film still has some wonderful surprises up its sleeve, which include a superbly edited action sequence, in which Leelo lays waste to a room full of dribbling, gun toting aliens, intercut with a techno-fused opera.

Not to mention the sheer joy of Jovovich’s performance, not just the best in the picture, but of her career in general. Up to that point, best known as a model, Jovovich instils Leelo with a beautifully judged sense of childlike wonder, wrapped inside an ass kicking killing machine, completely selling us on the idea that she alone could save the universe. Or that she could fall in love with Bruce Willis.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Have 20 Years Been Kind To Luc Besson's Schizophrenic Sci-fi?

source: Columbia Pictures

Next month The Fifth Element will be re-released in a brand spanking new 4K transfer, guaranteed to turn your eyeballs to jelly. And yet, one has to wonder, two decades on, if Besson’s film has a place in the genre at all, given how redundant much of it seems these days. The Fifth Element is certainly indulgent, rarely subtle and ultimately, a muddled picture which cant quite seem to make up its mind if it has anything to add to the history of such film making. And yet, it has a huge amount of ambition, enough to make the prospect of another slice of French flavoured space pie seem almost delectable.

The studios will no doubt have their fingers crossed. Besson’s latest, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is out this Summer. It’s not the catchiest of titles, and it looks horrifyingly similar to Jupiter Ascending (ironically a film that was clearly influenced by The Fifth Element), and which, with a $200 million price tag, makes it a possible disaster waiting to happen. But if the trailer is anything to go by, you get the picture. And in the end, that seems to be what audiences want these days. Visual splendour.

In that respect, The Fifth Element delivers the goods. It’s just that, unlike the best films of its genre, the ideas are stuck in customs, waiting for the Multipass that will never come.

Where do you feel The Fifth Element ranks in the genre of Science Fiction? Do you consider it a classic or a footnote?

The 4K remaster of The Fifth Element will screen in 400 cinemas in the US, on May 14th and May 17th. A 4K Bluray release will follow on July 11th (US). UK release unknown at this time.

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CHRIS WATT is a screenwriter, novelist and film critic. A graduate of the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, Watt has contributed reviews and articles to FLICKFEAST, SHOW THE SHARK, DEATH BY MOVIES and THE BEARD EMPORIUM and was formerly the Senior Film Critic for WATCH THIS SPACE FILM MAGAZINE. His screenplay, MANIFEST, was produced and released by Charlatan Films in 2015. He was shortlisted in 2014, for the Shore Scripts Short Screenplay Competition, for his screenplay EVEN GOD GETS MAD IN THE TEMPLE. His first novel, PEER PRESSURE, was published in 2012. You can follow his word based ramblings at his site: https://thechriswatt.wordpress.com/ and on twitter @thechriswatt Watt lives and works in the North-East of Scotland.

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