The Fifth Element 25 Years Later: Still One of the Greatest Space Operas Ever
250 years in the future, all will be lost unless the fifth element is found.
Revisiting Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element
This year marks 25 years since Luc Besson’s jaw-dropping and mind-blowing space opera, The Fifth Element was released in theaters. I clearly remember going into the theatre optimistic; I was young and the thought that The Fifth Element could be the next Star Wars had me really excited. It didn’t hurt that I was already a huge fan of the director, a well-respected artist whose short but impressive resume included La Femme Nikita and The Professional (Leon). I saw it on opening day, and I was not disappointed.
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is a wild space opus that gives you everything from the unadulterated entertainment of Star Wars to the inspired visual artistry of Blade Runner to the slapstick lunacy of Monty Python. The film received mainly positive reviews – although it tended to polarize critics, and has been called both the best and worst summer blockbuster of all time. Of course, I didn’t know or care what the critics were saying since I wasn’t reading film reviews and the internet still wasn’t a household thing. All I knew was that I saw something wild. It was far from perfect, a huge slobbering mess with a convoluted plot that made no sense, but it was unlike any blockbuster I had seen prior.
The film was actually a financial success, earning more than $263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget. And at the time of its release, it was the most expensive European film ever made, and it remained the highest-grossing French film at the international box office until the release of The Untouchables in 2011. What I couldn’t understand, however, was why none of my friends shared in my excitement, and why not one of them made an effort to see it on the big screen. Here in Canada, The Fifth Element really only found a cult following when it was released on home video, and the real story of The Fifth Element lies just there – in its cult appeal.
A brief history of how it was made…
Co-written and directed by Besson, The Fifth Element had been a project the filmmaker was obsessed with for most of his life. Taking inspiration from comics created by Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mezieres (both of whom would come on board as production designers), Besson began writing his sci-fi opus at age sixteen, a few years before Star Wars was released, and long before he ever picked up a film camera. Besson reportedly had a whopping 400 pages of story and two sprawling scripts before he ever started work on The Fifth Element. By the time he was ready to start production, he had five features under his belt – only his solid track record wasn’t enough to convince his producers to financially back his futuristic blockbuster. He put The Fifth Element on hold, and with the help of French studio Gaumont, he hired British producer Iain Smith and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen to whip his screenplay into shape while he set out to write and direct Léon: The Professional. Luckily for Besson, his film about a professional hitman (starring Jean Reno, a teenage Natalie Portman, and Gary Oldman) made $45 million worldwide on a $16 million budget and was such a critical success that it convinced his investors to allow Besson to finally start work on his dream project.
What is it about?
The Fifth Element is pretty much just a love letter to the classic action sci-fi comics of Luc Besson’s adolescence, and like those comics, it features an absurd plot, one which takes place in the year 2259 and involves the survival of planet Earth. It’s up to Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a taxicab driver and former special forces major, to save the planet and recover four mystical stones containing the energies of the four classical elements, as well as a sarcophagus containing a fifth element in the form of a genetically-engineered superheroine named Leeloominai Lekatariba Lamina-Tchai Ekbat De Sebat, or Leeloo for short (Mila Jovovich). Pretty soon there’s a rogues’ gallery of misfits looking for the stones, including a wacky astrophysicist (Ian Holm), the megalomaniac Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), and a fleet of alien warriors known as the Mondoshawans. The quest, which starts on Earth during the twenty-third century, takes us to a future outer space vacation resort where the stones are supposedly hidden. The film isn’t that hard to understand (no harder than trying to pronounce Leeloo’s full name), but it just doesn’t make much sense. All one needs to know really is that Leeloo holds unimaginable powers, but she needs help, and who better to help her than a taxi driver? Soon the future of the universe is in their hands.
Back in 1997, The Fifth Element was a breath of fresh air that left behind all the angst and self-seriousness of other Hollywood blockbusters.
The Fifth Element feels long at 127 minutes, and it’s pretty clear that the director had a hard time (as most artists do) cutting out some of the film’s amazing set pieces. This gonzo sci-fi outing certainly proves to be messy at times, yet for all its narrative incoherencies, visual excesses, and shifting tones, it offers such extraordinary visions that the movie somehow works. Perhaps the closest comparison someone can make is James Gunn’s The Guardians of the Galaxy, in that much of what appears on screen has the air of a jokey, zany, over-the-top spectacle dreamed up by an over-imaginative teenage boy who wants to cram a bit of everything he loved as a child into a mainstream blockbuster with the loose, anarchic soul of a cult flick. And that’s what makes the film so special – the director’s childlike sense of wonder and his love of comic books. It may be a mess, but it’s an extremely good-natured mess, full of humor and warmth, and its own unique blend of comedy, political commentary, and space opera, never gets old.
Milla Jovovich is a runaway star!
The Fifth Element is a strange beast because it seems that thematically, each scene is at odds with what the previous or next scene is set out to do. At the center of the story is the titular character, painstakingly reconstructed layer by layer into human form – “pure perfection,” as several characters state throughout the film. She’s a Supreme Being, the extraterrestrial Fifth Element that can save the earth, yet she refuses to do her world-saving without confirmation that Dallas loves her. Her character has polarized viewers, fans, and critics, and ever since it was released in 1997, there have been countless deconstructions of Leeloo, some calling her a positive role model, while others criticize her as a stand-in for Besson’s fetish for “short-haired, ferocious girls in scanty outfits.” It doesn’t help that all the other women in the film are portrayed as passive objects, such as the sexualized flight attendant and the fast-food service clerk. The thing is, I never viewed The Fifth Element as being offensive in any way. There is no doubt the film is full of contradictions but it’s also a hopelessly optimistic film, from the opening scene to the across-the-universe climax. The Fifth Element is a film that rejects our reliance on technology and slavish adherence to consumerism, government encroachment, working-class strife, and the disregard for big corporations. It’s a film that believes there is still good left in humanity and imagines a future where love saves the day. It presents a future where nobody concerns themselves with somebody else’s social status or race, and where a blue-collar working man with a good heart can stand against the deadliest threats. While Leeloo spends much of the film being hauled around by her male co-star, it sort of makes sense, since she’s still learning to adapt to her new environments. If anything, The Fifth Element doubles as a coming of age story, where the newly reborn, childlike sci-fi heroine becomes one of the most powerful forces in the universe, capable of saving billions of lives.
The film made the Ukrainian-born model Milla Jovovich a runaway star, opening the door for more female-led action movie roles in the years to come, and while the handling of her character is far from perfect, it was still a step closer to seeing more women featured in prominent roles in large-scale action films.
Let’s discuss Korben Dallas and DJ Ruby Rhod
Of course, a second major critique of the film points to the fact that every other man in the story seems entirely useless next to Dallas. Korben Dallas is like most characters that Bruce Willis has played over the course of his career – a tough, sarcastic everyman with a heart of gold. It’s the same work the actor had been doing since Die Hard and like that film, it only makes sense that a man with some sort of military-like training has an easier time using a gun and physically getting himself out of danger. Here’s the thing, though: as good as Bruce Willis is in The Fifth Element, he’s also the least interesting character, a modern cowboy archetype outshined by some of the queerest, gender-bending supporting roles seen in a blockbuster this size. Chris Tucker’s take on the arrogant DJ Ruby Rhod is marked with one brave choice after the next. He strings his words together with his signature motormouth delivery couched in such a flamboyant femme confidence that each sentence ends with a punctuation mark. Tucker’s role was originally meant for Prince, who turned down the offer, and no doubt it would be a better film with the prince of pop, but give credit to Tucker for giving it his all – even if he should have dialed it down a bit. The Los Angeles Times dubbed Tucker the most outrageous special effect in the movie, and it’s easy to see why. From the moment he makes his entrance, clad in a leopard print jumpsuit, it’s hard to notice anything else onscreen. In a different movie, a character like Ruby would be the butt of gay jokes. In The Fifth Element, Ruby still provides comic relief, but the comedy stems more from his celebrity arrogance (and being forced into a crazy space adventure that almost anyone would find incredibly overwhelming). He’s not punished for his queer mannerisms, and when Willis and Jovovich save the day, Ruby Rhod is standing there too. The problem with his performance, if there is one, is simply his high-pitched voice – nothing more. Everything else about Rudy Rhod is cinematic gold.
Gary Oldman makes an appearance!
I also couldn’t go without quickly mentioning Gary Oldman’s scenery-chewing Emanuel Zorg, a sinister egomaniac who would seem at home as the villain of any Marvel film. Oldman relishes every moment on screen, playing Zorg as a combination of sleazy politician and a dirty businessman, complete with a bizarre South Georgia accent. It’s far from the actor’s best performance, and he’s clearly dialing it in, but somehow he fits Luc Besson’s mad, mad world.
The real stars of The Fifth Element
Besson hired an international cast compiled of veteran Hollywood actors, British comedians, various musicians and a runway of supermodels, and it paid off in spades. The real stars of The Fifth Element, however, are renowned cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, production designer Dan Weil, and the special effects team, Digital Domain. What makes The Fifth Element so much fun is its visual style. It has a European sensibility to it, but also the sleek stylishness of a modern music video. For the most part, it’s bright and dripping with every color in the rainbow, as if some child’s box of Crayola crayons exploded on the screen. The French auteur and his team never stop giving you something to look at. Even more impressive is that Besson operated the camera himself for the majority of the shoot. Comparisons with Blade Runner and Star Wars are often thrown around, but The Fifth Element draws heavily from another famous film: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The Fifth Element is full of bold design choices, from the early moments in New York City, derived from both “metabolist-inspired masses of modular apartments from the 1960s” and the futuristic designs of architect Antonio Sant’Elia in the 1910s, to the endless delights of Fhloston Paradise. My favourite scene remains the Opera, which features one of the few pieces of music in the film that is diegetic. It was sung by Albanian soprano Inva Mula, while the role of Plavalaguna was played by French actress Maïwenn Le Besco. Besson wanted to capture everyone’s natural astonished reactions the first time they saw the Diva sing, so he kept the actress (his then-wife) hidden behind a curtain until the time came to shoot her entrance. The look on Bruce Willis’ face is priceless.
The Fifth Element was made at the cusp of the digital effects revolution, and the film combined nascent computer-generated imagery with old-school practical effects. Nick Allder was placed in charge of mechanical and pyrotechnical effects, Nick Dudman was placed in charge of creature effects, and Mark Stetson headed the visual effects team. It took a crew of 80 workers five months to build the models used in the film. Everything from its creature designs to its miniature NYC model city and the spaceships drifting through outer space looks fantastic, even to this day. Some individual shots used a combination of live-action, scale models, computer-generated imagery, and particle systems. Luc Besson and his team pulled every trick in the book, including digital matte paintings for backgrounds and the NURBS mathematical model for certain animations, such as the sequence in which Leeloo’s body is reconstructed.
While the rest of the visuals are pretty impressive for the time, it’s the costumes by the L’Enfant Terrible of the fashion world, Jean Paul Gaultier, that I remember the most. The famous fashion designer worked around the clock, creating over 1000 bright, detailed, out-of-this-world costumes for the film. Praised for being intellectually transgressive, his designs are set to challenge sexuality and gender norms. Unlike most science fiction films, Gaultier’s costumes are bright and playful, and even after 20 years, they remain a remarkable feat of design.
Back in 1997, The Fifth Element was a giddy breath of fresh air that left behind all the angst and self-seriousness of other Hollywood blockbusters to deliver a fantastic piece of pop sci-fi that never takes itself too seriously. Even if you dislike its story or hate the portrayal of certain characters, you’re bound to find something you will love. The Fifth Element is unhinged and messy, but a truly inspiring work of art.Watch The Fifth Element