The Fifth Element

1997 / 126m - France
Comedy, Sci-fi
The Fifth Element poster

It's been more than 10 years since I last watched Luc Besson's crazy space opera. Both ode and parody, The Fifth Element is a strange blend of genres, wearing its many influences on its sleeve while making sure it establishes a few memorable scenes of its own along the way. Truth be told, time hasn't been all that kind to this one, but the core of the film remains untouched. It's still a fun film, just not as amazing as I remembered it to be.

screen capture of The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element was the follow-up to Léon, Luc Besson's (Angel-A) big international breakthrough film. While everyone was waiting for another action/crime epic, Besson went his own merry way and came up with a comedy/fantasy/sci-fi bender. As was to be suspected, not everyone appreciated Besson's bold choice and so the initial reception of The Fifth Element was mixed at best. Over the years though, the film found its niche and nowadays the film enjoys the comfort and protection of a clan of loyal fans.

Besson set out to make a film that pays homage to some of the biggest genre representatives. The early scenes in Egypt are vintage Indiana Jones, the futuristic city is a more colorful version of Blade Runner's metropolis and the birth of Leeloo is strangely reminiscent of project 2501's awakening in Kokaku Kidotai. The Fifth Element never feels derivative though as Besson goes to great lengths to make the material his own, adding to the source material rather than merely copying it.

The story revolves around the fifth element, a mythical element that is supposed to protect the universe from immense harm should the need arise. The secrets of the fifth element are buried deep within one of Egypt's pyramids, guarded from afar by a race of friendly aliens. When evil leader Zorg teams up with a malignant force called Mr Shadow, the universe is running out of time to retrieve the fifth element and to save everyone from doom.

screen capture of The Fifth Element

With the recent resurgence of sci-fi cinema, The Fifth Element has began to suffer on a technical level. The visual effects are underwhelming and the CG just doesn't really cut it anymore. Some shots are clearly geared to awe the audience, but those shots just fall flat now. Luckily the camera work is still more than solid and the sets and costumes still hold their cheesy charm, preventing the film from becoming a typical outdated CG nightmare.

The soundtrack on the other is pretty generic Hollywood fare. It's light-hearted, bombastic and ultimately forgettable. It isn't as annoying as other epic Hollywood soundtracks tend to be, but it's far from good. That is, until the opera scene starts. Out of nowhere Besson pulls out a song that becomes the focal point of an entire scene, perfectly mixed and edited to some pretty slick action antics. The scene became an instant classic and I really wish he'd included more moments like this throughout the film.

Besson did assemble a pretty special cast for the occasion. Bruce Willis is perfect as the smirky action hero, Jovovich plays one of the most memorable roles of her career and Holm is as dependable as ever. Stand-out parts are reserved for Gary Oldman (Besson gets the perfect villain out of him) and Chris Tucker, though his part is best described as extremely polarizing. All in all a pretty great cast, perfectly coached by Besson.

screen capture of The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is pretty funky space opera, a pastiche that honors its source material, but is also frank enough to poke a little fun at it. Its light-heartedness might surprise unsuspecting viewers, but it's an essential part of the film that is introduced very early on and is exploited until the very last scene. The Fifth Element may be set in the future, but it's probably more fantasy than sci-fi and above all it's a comedy, so hardcore sci-fi fans might think twice before venturing into Besson's wondrous universe.

If only Besson had bet a little less on the special effects. Almost 20 years later they have lost much of their shine, leaving the film looking a bit cheaper than intended. It's a shame because the rest of the film is still as charming and funny as the day it was released. It features a great cast, plenty of smart references and some memorable scenes of its own. The Fifth Element is one of Besson's greatest achievements, a film only he could make.