Retrospective: The Fifth Element (1997)


The Fifth Element is the second Luc Besson movie I have reviewed but the one I much prefer. It has an exceptionally stupid plot but it has some quite magnificent shots and a sheer wealth of ideas floating around. It’s brilliant in much the same way as the science fiction novels of the 1970s, full of crazy plots but some very interesting ideas as well.

The plot goes as follows: every thousand years or so, aliens save the world until one time they don’t because they are murdered by Gary Oldman’s Corp of Evil with his ugly Orc-like mercenaries. But we’re not really here for the plot, we are here for the visuals and the inspiration of a particular sort of Science Fiction vision, one left untainted by Star Wars and Buck Rodgers because it is remarkably strong visually. It has an emphasis on imagery from the off, such as the image of Bruce Wills’s job as a space taxi driver going through this massive New York-like city with air cars and other insane air traffic and the sight of his hole of an apartment which is falling apart but still has advanced security. Its visual imagery is frankly astonishing and it is also rather surprising just how well it still holds up considering the film’s age and the frankly rather B-movie vibe you get from the movie.

The Fifth Element appeals to me for a number of reasons. There is the old style of the effects and the best description I can think of is that it looks like a book cover for Sci Fi novels from the 60s-70s such as the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. The story is garbage but it has a great sense of style and a very individual look to it. Unlike so many other movies it has an independent spirit to its design which was incredibly influential for visions of the future, such as the way it showed the sort of system for air cars and mile high living.

One of the closest movies to compare this with is Taxi, a French cult movie about a souped-up Parisian taxi which gets up to adventures and solves crimes and terrorism. In many ways this is the same movie but with Bruce Willis solving everything right up to the apocalypse because of the person (Milla Jovovich)) who happened to jump into his cab. This is sadly the worst way a plot can work because it relies on coincidence and a particularly contrived sort of coincidence. The contrived plot points are forgiven mainly because it looks so pretty and it is one of the most noteworthy Science Fiction movies which doesn’t have any visible influences. Its unique look is so central to the appeal of the movie because the plot is garbage and the acting isn’t great. Chris Tucker’s character is so incredibly annoying and it is almost a movie breaker just how annoying he is. The gods of contrivance and deus ex machina are apparent within the plot, with its collection of mythical trinkets before bad people do bad things which need to be stopped.

During my ‘research’ I discovered that this was one of the most divisive films in that year’s Cannes Film Festival and it is still a movie which splits opinion. I find this a bit surprising. Like other movies from Besson, it’s too stupid plot-wise to be a truly controversial movie. With a distinct look and style from a wonderful futuristic New York, to an airport that makes getting into America look painless, to the world’s coolest space cruise, plus some extremely annoying characters but some quite nice ones as well such as an evil Gary Oldman and Bruce Wills who plays the exasperated everyman with such ease, it’s a movie hard not to sit back and enjoy.

Review by Harry Riedl

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