This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Amy Stewart.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by Luc Besson
The 1990s saw a slew of big-budget science fiction films, and most of them were memorable but not fantastic. Independence Day and Judge Dredd come to mind. However, there would occasionally be a diamond in the rough. Demolition Man would be a campy favorite. Contact was a science fiction pic made for people desiring something more cerebral. And then we have The Fifth Element, a lavish indulgence of production design, eccentric characters, and space opera that never takes itself too seriously yet has so much heart. There are few films like it which is probably why The Fifth Element has endured in people’s memories. But, unfortunately, even the director failed to recapture the magic decades later.
Every five thousand years, a great evil emerges from the universe and makes its way to Earth in an attempt to destroy it. This is stopped with help from the Monodshawans, a bulky alien race that has created a weapon powered by the four elements of the planet (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) and a mysterious fifth element represented by a perfect being. In the 23rd century, the great evil has arrived near the borders of the solar system and is made even more potent by the Earth’s weapons. The Mondoshawans are attacked before bringing the items to Earth, but Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), the perfect being, is recovered and recreated in a laboratory. She is immediately confused by how different the world is but manages to escape the facility. Coming to her aid is ex-soldier, current taxi cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Despite trying to keep his nose clean, Dallas embarks on an epic journey that will have him face down the great evil alongside Leeloo.
The first thing I noticed on this rewatch of The Fifth Element was how it balances dramatic moments with a lot of comedy. This picture has some great jokes and humorous set pieces that never feel cheesy. Often the movie can overwhelm the senses, especially with the introduction of Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), possibly one of the best comedic side characters ever in a film. There is so much personality in the acting; even Bruce Willis, who has receded into a bloated monotone these days, feels alive in this role. He’s still playing it cool & aloof, but the movie has fun with that persona and comments on it.
I think the supporting cast of this movie is criminally overlooked. There is, of course, Chris Tucker but then Ian Holm as Vito Cornelius, the head of a secret society centered around preparing for the great evil, is extremely funny. Besson upends the wise old mage trope and has Corneilus absolutely lose his cool in the face of the challenge he’s prepared his whole life for. He stammers and nervously laughs his way through situations, and it feels much more honest than the cliches. There’s a playfulness about where we expect the story to go and how we expect these characters to act. Brion James plays General Munro, an old friend of Willis’s, and he’s also given some fun, slapstick moments. British comedian Lee Evans has a slight role as Fog, a crewman aboard an intergalactic cruise ship, and he does so much with that tiny bit.
The world of The Fifth Element is not like too many other futures we’ve seen portrayed in the media. It owes an outstanding debt to artist Moebius but also seems to be, in turn, inspired by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. These futures are cramped & overly complicated for the ordinary working person. Dallas’ apartment barely has room for more than a couple people with the bed, shower, refrigerator, etc., shifting and sliding to make room for each other. Outside, Earth has gone vertical with layers of flying cars.
Great acclaim should be given to the film’s editor, Sylvie Landra, who cuts together moments to create tension and great comedy. There’s an excellent back and forth as one character asks questions, and we see their answer delivered in another location from someone else in two completely separate conversations. The grand climax on the cruise ship is another place where the edit just ratchets things up again and again until it’s hard to stay in your seat. There are lots of ticking time bombs, literally & figuratively.
The Fifth Element isn’t perfect, though. Leeloo, as beloved as she is, doesn’t have much agency in the story. She is entirely dependent on Dallas from almost her first moments on screen. She does have a few scenes where she is beating up the bad guys, but ultimately, the “hero” of the story is Dallas, and I was left disappointed by that. Leeloo is the perfect being, so it should have been her actions that saved the world, and Dallas could be along for the ride. She’s also the most endearing character in the movie and deserved a more central role in the narrative. There are minor flaws here & there, but overall, The Fifth Element has what a lot of modern high-action science fiction films lack, a sense of humor and play about themselves.
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