Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman
Plot: In the future, a cab driver becomes an unwitting hero, as he tries to save the world from an unstoppable evil with help from a mysterious woman.
Futuristic films usually reflect the time they were made in. Classic examples such as A Clockwork Orange which was decidedly 70s, Blade Runner, with an unashamed early 80s feel throughout and then The Fifth Element, that you would expect to be stuck in the mid-1990s, but in fact transcends the decades to the point at which it might just as easily have been a box-office hit today. A likeable Everyman character at its heart, bright and shiny cities and garish costumes created in the unmistakable style of Jean-Paul Gaultier – love it or hate it, this is abstract art in cinematic form.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, a group of extraterrestrials known as Mondoshawans arrive at an ancient Egyptian temple to collect a weapon that is the only object capable of destroying a Great Evil that appears above Earth every five thousand years. The weapon comprises of four stones representing earth, water, air and fire and a sarcophagus that contains the important ‘Fifth Element’ in the form of a human – all of these elements are to be combined to create a ‘Divine Light’. The Mondoshawans tell their contact, a priest, that they will return with the Elements at the prescribed time in order to save the planet, but an incident forces them to give a key to the priest and instruct him to pass it down to the future generation who will have to use it.
In the mid-23rd Century, the Great Evil appears in space in the form of a giant ball of black fire, which destroys a ship from Earth. President Lindberg (Tommy Lister) is told of the history behind the ‘Evil’ and of the elements that must be used to stop it by the current priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm). The Mondoshawan’s spacecraft is ambushed by the Mangalores, a shape-shifting alien race hired by industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Oldman) and destroyed – the only thing recovered is the hand of the Fifth Element, which is used to create a humanoid woman known as Leeloo (Jovovich). She escapes from captivity by jumping from a ledge and landing in the cab of passing taxi driver Korben Dallas (Willis), who eventually finds Cornelius despite the close attentions of the police. They work out a way to defeat the Evil as Dallas wins a rigged competition to go on a space cruise on which an opera singer named Diva, who has possession of the other elements, is performing. Can the five elements be positioned in the temple and the Earth saved before it’s too late?
The Fifth Element has as many admirers as it does critics. After years of dystopian futures, here we were suddenly exposed to a vision of the future that was extremely colourful in many different ways, a progression from Back to the Future II which in itself used a much light-hearted, zany approach compared to the dark and dingy tone of Blade Runner. We don’t really get a sense of the film’s true scale until Mila Jovovich’s Leeloo stands on the ledge from which she falls quite literally into the life of our main protagonist, Dallas. The quite glorious shots of New York City in 2263 are absolutely stunning and from this moment on it is a world that we can get lost in quite happily. The look and feel of the film is somewhat let down by the hokum storyline, which seems to have been written in a hurry. The circumstances surrounding the ‘Great Evil’ is far too sketchy, as it manifests itself like Star Wars’ Death Star as a giant moving planet that consumes all before it. Having said that, the visuals continue to take the breath away even today and it is to Luc Besson’s credit that the entire composition of the film stands up to scrutiny in an ever more demanding audience used to elaborate CGI.
Bruce Willis essentially reprises his role as John McLane in Die Hard, taking his situation with a pinch of salt and making wise cracks despite the danger his character Korben Dallas is in. However, as Dallas is cut from the same cloth as McLane and Willis played him so well; this is actually a welcome aspect of his performance which is spot-on. Also pitch perfect is Mila Jovovich who is both weird and sexy at the same time, exactly what is required from Leeloo. The chemistry between Willis and Jovovich is superb and the film would not function anywhere near as well had there not been much sizzle between them. There are two major blots on the landscape – Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker. Oldman’s evil baddie has an inexplicable Deep South accent and an odd comb-over which is a combination that aims directly at a comedy dictator of sorts, but it doesn’t really work. Jar-Jar Binks often beats Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod radio DJ in the most annoying film characters ever lists, although while he does irritate his performance is actually mostly in keeping with the style of the film and retains the intended lightness going.
The Fifth Element is an action-packed bonanza that is not supposed to be taken seriously. Despite its faults, there is much to enjoy here despite the comedy which too often stumbles into silliness. If nothing else, it deserves a recommendation as one of the best futuristic films ever conceived and few have bettered it.