25 Years Later: The Fifth Element
To look at a list of the highest-grossing films of 1997 is to look upon the baby face of modern summer blockbuster cinema, led by Men in Black, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Air Force One, and Face/Off (fun fact: Titanic, which released on December 19th, is also in the top 10). The CGI revolution was just starting to take its hold on release schedules, with a collection of films that, 25 years later, feels like the infant form of the 21st century Intellectual Property Blockbuster dominating film today (a third of the year’s top 25 films have had sequels, which is more than it felt like back then).
A little bit further down the list, at 25th on the domestic box office charts for 1997, is Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element – one of the few great works of modern science fiction without a sequel, prequel, reboot, or television series based on itself (to date). Standing at the precipice of 21st-century filmmaking, with its allure for huge action set pieces and galaxy-spanning misanthropy, The Fifth Element seems a natural property to fuck up with a modern interpretation – and yet, here we are, celebrating its 25th anniversary with nothing to cloud the crystallized image of its beauty, the rare big-budget hit with no ancillary properties to tarnish its long-earned reputation (we don’t need to talk about The Fifth Element video game, ok? It’s bad).
Why has its legacy lasted so strong for two-plus decades, despite being a fairly by-the-numbers sci-fi story? Though its legacy seems straightforward – Bruce Willis vehicle and Milla Jovovich career launcher, from a director mostly (and rightly) blacklisted from the industry – The Fifth Element is really an amazing conflation of circumstances, an incredible cast (which is so damn good, it has Luke Perry in a supporting role for all of three minutes, almost as an afterthought), mixed with a genuine curiosity for the potential cost of a god realizing humanity’s crimes against itself – and of course, a healthy dose of horniness thrown in for good measure.
For starters, it is definitively the last truly great action film of Bruce Willis’ career (shut up, Sin City fans who time-traveled here from 2005), and a film that revitalized his reputation as a versatile superstar as he headed towards middle age. Coming off a collection of box office duds following Die Hard films (look, Hudson Hawk is fine, but early 90s audiences disagreed!), Willis was not quite the hot commodity nostalgia may suggest; in fact, Mel Gibson turned down the role of the legendary military officer-turned downtrodden cab driver before Willis accepted it, which was considered a “risky” move at the time.
Willis’ ability to navigate the spaces of Semi-Ugly, But Hot Action Hero and Funny Comedy Guy is really what sets the stage for Besson’s strange, compassionate film, adorned with science fiction deco of the 1960s – and a rather pedestrian plot line about a woman destined to save the universe, and the man with a huge hard-on reluctantly helping her out. But given Jovovich is mostly talking in foreign gibberish for the entire film, it’s up to Willis to pull the audience into its story of multi-passes and space-station resorts, to ground us in the dystopian 23rd century where the police state and capitalism reign strong, but those who live on the surface – or in Dallas’ case, wasted their best years doing dirty work for the authoritarian state – are left struggling for scraps (my favorite detail; the insane list of daily charges and fees Dallas is subject to as a cab driver).
The performance is amongst the finest of his career, able to walk the tightrope of 80’s action heroes – littered with military recognition, drowning in alcoholism, defined by toxic relationships – and yet reach for something decidedly more modern (and slightly less hard-assed) for 1997. With Jovovich as the strange, fire-haired Leeloo as a counterpart, Willis bridges those two Hero identities with a grace and charisma the MCU stars of 2022 could only dream of conveying. It is done so effortlessly, it’s almost hard to notice: but watching The Fifth Element in 2022 is observing a masterclass in constructing a male protagonist worth watching – one whose insecurities and shortcomings are crafted into the DNA of the character and performance, not just footnotes delivered as bits of exposition between explosions (or more frequently, Chris Tucker’s screams as future YouTube personality Ruby Rhod, a performance that is given way too much rope in the magnanimous second act).
Willis is the stoic man-child anchoring a series of outlandish performances; Tucker’s outlandish Rhod is only topped by Gary Oldman’s Jean-Paptiste Emanuael Zorg, the Elon Musk of securing contracts from an alien planet defying the laws of physics as its heads to consume Earth – and more importantly, the cartoonish counterpart to Willis’s straight man delivery. Oldman, who was coming off a more measured performance in Besson’s previous feature Leon: The Last Professional, unleashes the most unhinged character of his career (as of 1997) with the prancing, slithering Zorg, cutting deals with the alien Mangalore race hell-bent on world destruction (and killing the goofy Mondoshawans)… all because they give him cool guns he can take credit for, as apt a metaphor for the formerly balding, current world’s richest man that I could think of in this context.
One of the film’s finest moments features Oldman and Ian Holm (as Vito, the priest protecting Leeloo from Corbin’s boner), discussing the sanctity of life, and the role of technology in the world; as Zorg chokes on a grape, unable to get any of his robotic creations to come to his assistance, The Fifth Element playfully dips its toes into metaphysical ponderings on the fight between nature and technology. Holm, in particular, is fantastic in the scene, barely contained as Vito struts around Zorg’s office, watching the most evil man in the world turn blue without a hand being laid on him. Vito saves him, of course, sparing the film from some meatier questions about religious commitment; but it still functions beautifully as a scene to depict the power struggles between faith and finance, and why the former is so often willing to give into the latter – if it makes life so easy, who wouldn’t slowly sacrifice all their morals to enjoy it?
The Fifth Element is ahead of its time in many other regards: it is one of the earlier American films to feature a black president (Tiny Lister Jr., Lister-ing the shit out of what is should be a stuffy, rather thankless rule as America’s future President), and more importantly, is one of the few late-era American blockbusters with a distinctly dark view on capitalism’s rot (before modern films would just drape everything in neon as a sign of faux cyberpunk-itude). The Fifth Element does not exist in a hopeful future; it is one resigned to its inefficiencies, littered with strict, ingrained class structures and rotting garbage, a wasteland of how corporations and technology’s lasting impact on humanity (see: Corbin trying to do anything in his apartment, despite having lived there for an extended period of time).
Sure, The Fifth Element is not quite the modern feminist masterpiece some hoped it would be (one could argue Besson’s La Femme Nikita is more fitting, in this regard); there’s a lot of interesting, if somewhat overwrought, criticism for Leeloo’s role in her own story as harbinger of love, wearer of straps, and savior of the universe. The film does treat her as an object of desire and power after she’s finally introduced 28 minutes into the film; but Leeloo’s disdain for humanity, and her inability to just overlook and forgive the pain humans inflict on each other (again, a condemnation of humanity and its destructive attitude towards itself), stands in direct contrast with much of the criticism I’ve read on the film of her character, offering texture and a bit of pre-2000s goth into our female protagonist, creating one of the more interesting takes on a now-tired archetype.
And yes, Leeloo’s character is often a moment of sexual awakening for an entire era of late millennials (and also, the deliverer of the iconic “multipass” line) – but she is also the show’s literal beating heart, the very device powering the rhythm of the film’s greatest scene, and the catalyst for religious zealots and atheists alike to contemplate the otherworldly powers of compassion and forgiveness, and the renewal and promise they can offer hopeless minds and lost souls. Humanity might not be worth saving; but goddamnit, if we can’t hold onto the few beautiful, real things we have left, then we’ve truly lost all hope.
It is also a deserving breakout moment for Jovovich – who to date, had only a few roles, including Michelle in Dazed and Confused, to her credit. As Leeloo, Jovovich had to strike a balance between two discordant identities, similar in execution to how Willis did it; Leeloo must exist as a pure, slightly immature soul (think Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but with a huge language barrier and less reliance on mecha for fighting world-ending aliens) but she is also an actual being of divine power, a difficult balancing act the still-green Jovovich pulls off with surprising aplomb (again, she spends half the movie wearing nothing but some elaborately-placed straps, making her ability to drive her character’s emotive arc forward with nothing but physical performance all the more impressive).
Also, consider this counterpoint – sometimes it’s just ok to have a superpowered woman, featuring a sidekick dude who is just simply super horny for her. In a world where film and television have become near celibate, The Fifth Element drowns audiences in cheesy romantic melodrama, a series of wistful comments and missed glances by Dallas to a woman that could never understand his voice, but could hear his body talk – TFE understands this is a goofy attraction that doesn’t make sense, and in that earnestness, finds humanity that buries most of the modern rom-com industry with a few smoldering looks, and that scene where Dallas fights the urge to look at the very hot alien woman getting undressed in his apartment.
The best scene of the film, obviously, is the iconic space opera/hip-hop fight scene, which unleashes its central cast for a destructive, electric set piece staged on an immaculately designed cruise spaceship, and set to the singings of Diva Plavalaguna’s “The Diva Dance” (which is performed in the film by Maiwenn Le Besco, who apparently was also in a love triangle with Besson and Jovovich during the production of the film!). As Willis unleashes one-liners, Leeloo fucks up aliens with sick breakdancing karate, and Ruby screams, The Fifth Element catalyzes the zany energy of the film’s first hour, crystallizing it into one of the most memorable action set pieces of the 1990s – one that can end with our hero pulling one of the film’s MacGuffin items out of Plavalaguna’s chest cavity, a scene so outlandish and committed to the bit, that it left 10-year old me with my jaw on the floor in orgasmic awe of the Cinema I’d just witnessed.
Of course, adult me knows there’s no Leeloo coming to save us in the real world – there isn’t even a Vito Cornelius around, nobly putting themselves into intergalactic danger to fight off the hungry corporations of the world, who will literally plot their destruction and bleed hair dye down their faces before they go to therapy. However, I, along with Corbin Dallas and President Lindberg, believe we can aspire to be more than the garbage munchers that consist of Ruby Rhod’s fanbase, with the nobility and faith in humanity of Vito and his disciples (but maybe not the religious zealotry). “Love is worth saving” is not the deepest message; but boy, is it an honest and prescient one, a culmination of the show’s heartfelt, if superficial, views on the parts of humanity that even technology can’t destroy; life, love, and death.
(Most of all, I hope I can retire one day while my mother is on the phone, yelling at the President on my behalf – if that’s not the perfect ending to a perfect movie, then I would contend one doesn’t exist.)Watch The Fifth Element