Originality is a rare commodity in movies these days. Adaptations, remakes and wholly derivative works clog the cinemas and jostle one another in cajoling you for your money. There was a time when an original spectacle didn’t have to count on a phrase like “You have to see it in 3-D to get the most out of it.” I’m speaking here of films like Metropolis, Blade Runner and Akira, films with such singular and original visions that they blew minds when they first debuted, and in some ways still remain fresh by the light of modern screens. This is not to say The Fifth Element ascends to that sort of cinematic pantheon, but it does provide some stunningly unique visuals that speak to the ambition, passion and imagination of its creator. And it’s a blast to watch.
Our story begins in 1914, where an archaeologist in Egypt uncovers an ancient tomb where a desperate battle was once waged. Every 5,000 years, a great and powerful evil force crosses into our universe from parts unknown bent on wiping out all life – at least on Earth, it doesn’t seem to make any other pit stops. Anyway, the archaeologist translates the ancient depiction to tell us that the only way to defeat this evil is with the four elements – air, fire, earth and water – gathered around a mysterious fifth, an ‘ultimate warrior’. No sooner are we given this exposition than the imposing but benevolent Mondoshawan aliens arrive, revealing that the four elemental stones and the warrior (in a sort of statue stasis thing) were right under the archaeologist’s nose, and now must be removed from Earth due to the oncoming World War. It’s when the movie time-skips ahead 300 years that director Luc Besson completely assaults our eye sockets in a way most would probably thank him for.
New York City, 2263. Reports are coming to Earth of a giant ball of fire impervious to damage and on a collision course. With help from a terrestrial priest, the Mondoshawan contact Earth with the intent to return the five elements to battle the incoming evil, but they are intercepted by vicious thug-like and extremely unpleasant aliens called Mangalores. All that is left is the hand of the Mondoshawan’s passenger, and through super-science, Earth technicians reconstruct the ultimate warrior, revealing it to be a beautiful if waifish humanoid who promptly escapes. Korben Dallas, played by Bruce Willis as a mix between Butch from ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a futuristic John McClane, is a retired space fighter pilot and special ops soldier making a living as a cab driver when the warrior, ‘Leeloo’, drops literally into his lap. Korben and Leeloo end up working with the priest to retrieve the elemental stones, which are also sought by malevolent arms dealer Zorg, who employed the Mangalores but isn’t really the most scrupulous of business partners. He likes to blow things up, especially people who disappoint him.
I’m starting to think there’s no role Gary Oldman can’t absolutely nail.
What we have here is indeed a mish-mash of elements. Mysticism, cyberpunk, blazing sci-fi gunplay and some generous portions of ham are all mixed up in a very colorful and boisterous way. This is a film crafted and directed with a bit of abandon, a touch of whimsy that clearly has roots in the genesis of the story, which director Luc Besson wrote when he was a teenager. When it comes to cinematography, set design and special effects, this movie not only delivers but holds up despite the way in which graphics have marched on. The aliens not only feel real, given that they’re not composed entirely of pixels, but they also seem… well, alien.
To some, the entire film might feel that way. Some people might not be able to allow the visuals to overcome some of the way the elements of the film don’t blend as smoothly as they could. Others might feel it’s a tad long in the tooth, from the first scene in Egypt to sequences like Leeloo learning about war. And I’m sure that while I found Chris Tucker’s extremely flamboyant intergalactic DJ “RUBY RHOD!” to be hilarious more often than not, some might get rubbed entirely the wrong way by him. Other characters may feel one-note, underdeveloped or just outright insufferable. Broken into individual elements, there’s a lot in The Fifth Element that has no right whatsoever to work as well as it does in the final equation. It’s an over-the-top and completely off-the-wall sci-fi pantomime, which might put it in the “Pass” column for some people.
No, no, no, Leeloo, I said ‘Pass’. Not ‘Multi-Pass’.
However, to others (including myself), that’s part of its charm. Much like Flash Gordon, the sense of camp and self-awareness that permeates The Fifth Element keeps it from being taken too seriously. And when viewed merely as a feast for the eyes and two hours of escapist fantasy fun, rather than a treatise on The Power of Love or a would-be usurper of the Star Wars juggernaut, the film reveals a sense of humor not just about itself, but the genre in general. It’s light-hearted, surprisingly quotable and unafraid to make some of its set pieces, costumes and characters downright ridiculous in the name of having a little fun.
The Fifth Element is ultimately harmless, diverting and enjoyable if you can forgive some of the rougher patches in the storytelling in terms of scene length and characterization. It doesn’t make apologies for itself in that regard, however. It’s completely committed to delivering this campy, colorful and rather unique vision of the future, which in my opinion is a nice change from the many variations on dystopia that seem to have come to dominate a large portion of the genre. There are plenty of great moments to carry a viewer from one scene to another, and many stand out in retrospect, from Zorg introducing his multi-use BFG to the Mangalores to the show-stopping Diva performance. Fans of science fiction, unique costuming, great make-up work and actors having an all-out blast with their roles could do a hell of a lot worse than The Fifth Element. Throw it on your Netflix queue and give it a look. Some might say it’s “So bad it’s good” and others claim it’s “So cool it’s awesome.” Personally, I’m one of those balls-out weirdos who happen to think it’s BOTH.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.