On its release, Luc Besson’s ambitious sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element was divisive, being lambasted by some critics while lauded by others. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising as it remains desperately short of its ambitions, but is certainly so jam-packed with ideas that some were always going to miss the mark…while others work delightfully.
The basic plot is as hoary a genre set-up as possible. A great evil anti-life type thing shows up once every 300 years and the only way to stop it is through a super-weapon that requires the use of four elemental stones and one mysterious fifth element. Of course, the weapon can also be used for evil, so various nefarious types are also after it.
Besson began writing the script when he was 16 and it shows. Characters are wafer-thin, attempts at comedy are gratingly bad while plot points are cliched at best, idiotic at worst. It is as if the script was an irritation to get out of the way before the real meat of the film could be worked on – the visuals.
And wow, what visuals they are.
The Fifth Element is a barrage of candy-bright colours, intricate details and Besson’s trademark swirls of smoke. From a prologue in 1910 Egypt to the 23rd century, the film is never less than dazzling to the eye. The creature designs are brilliant, the sets stunning and Besson shoots action with a panache rarely matched.
There are aspects that tend to go too far, though. Most notably, the costume designs by Jean-Paul Gaultier are camp in the extreme and often come across as silly even given the over-the-top tone of the movie. The rogues’ gallery of minor characters is too large as well, resulting in a messy feel.
Bruce Willis play Korben Dallas, the usual ex-military medal winner that tends to populate this sort of film. He plays it in his usual laconic hero style, although this actually works to ground the core of the movie in familiar terms. This turns out to be crucial when opposite him is Gary Oldman as the evil Zorg, chewing the scenery with aplomb and a silly accent, and Chris Tucker, going wildly broad as the campy DJ-type comic relief Ruby Rhod.
Milla Jovovich gives her breakthrough performance as the wide-eyed Leeloo, a role which mostly involves standing around and looking gorgeous in scanty costumes. Fortunately, she has the charms to do that with ease – maybe too well, as it was during the filming of The Fifth Element that Besson broke off his engagement to actress Maiwenn (who also has a role as the alien diva Plavalaguna) in order to hook up with Jovovich, 16 years his junior.
A visual triumph, The Fifth Element still has the ability to entertain, but its garish excess fails to cover up a lack of substance at its core. Ultimately, an unusual diversion, but little more.
Madman’s release of The Fifth Element is a two-disc Directors Suite two-disc edition with over 90 minutes of extras.