Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Fifth Element (1997)

I loved The Fifth Element (1997, Luc Besson) when I was in high school. It had everything. Kick-ass space babes, evil aliens, Gary Oldman, Bruce Willis, crazy costumes, romance, vague feel-good spirituality, an elaborately choreographed action sequence set to a techno remix of the mad aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. Basically, this film was designed for geeky teenagers to salivate over. My boyfriend mentioned a while ago that his family has a copy, so I "borrowed" it for a movie night with my friends. And it was still pretty good, I guess, but not as good as I remembered. Just proves You Can't Go Home Again (thanks a lot, Tom Wolfe).

I'm blue, da ba dee da ba da.
The Fifth Element is love, and love (for whatever reason) is all that can save Earth when it's about to get smashed by a glowing red planetoid. So it turns out that the Beatles were right and All You Need Is Love, except the problem is that love can only be properly manifested by an alien chick named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who has to visit a sacred Egyptian temple and unite with the other four elements in order to produce enough love to destroy an asteroid. On the way, she's romanced by space cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), which apparently helps. Anyway, despite the machinations of the wicked Zorg (Gary Oldman) and the interference of obnoxious talk-show host Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), Leeloo and Dallas make it to the church on time and save the earth. And then they have sex, more or less in public. And that's the end.

The Fifth Element is truly a sci-fi of a different color. It alternates between satire-action, broad slapstick and campy romance. The world-building is spectacular: this Earth is silly, but entirely believable. The costumes are gorgeous (Jean-Paul Gaultier, don't you know), the sets and editing slick and stylish. And though it's all retro, it's not at all dated. But although The Fifth Element's world is breathtaking, its story is dull. Part of the problem is that in this crazy Earth populated by alien opera stars, pansexual television personalities, and gorgeous extraterrestrial messiahs, The Fifth Element focuses 90% of its action on Korben Dallas, taxi man. Korben's nice enough, but he's too inoffensive to compete with the world he's been placed in. We don't care about this guy because everything else onscreen is always more exciting than he is. Maybe the producers thought that too much Ruby and Leeloo zaniness would put off audiences, but if they were going to create this bizzaro world to begin with, they should have let us sink our teeth into it.

The other problem with The Fifth Element is that its plot is 10% devoted to actual plot development and 90% devoted to "Weird alien! Awesome fight scene! Crazy planet-scape! Look over here! Check this out! Snap! Crackle! Pop!" In a lot of movies, this wouldn't be a problem, but the whole point of The Fifth Element is that the love between Korben and Leeloo saves the universe, and we never see it happen. He hits on her a little, she tolerates him, and then suddenly they're in love and the asteroid is toasty. It feels like a deus ex machina, and that's disappointing in any movie, no matter how slick and shiny it is.

The Fifth Element isn't really my kind of movie any more. It's too much flash-bang and not enough substance. Still, it's an iconic film of the 90s and that it posed a timely challenge to the poker-faced, vaguely existential sci-fi that was de rigeur by '97. I give it a 4/5, and not just out of nostalgia.

There's no time to get dressed when you're the savior of the universe.

FINAL GIRL: There are only two important female characters in The Fifth Element, and one of them dies, so I guess it does have a Final Girl even if it's not really horror. The woman in question is Leeloominaï Lekatariba Lamina-Tchaï Ekbat De Sebat, played by Milla Jovovich... understandably, they just call her Leeloo. She's a bit of a cypher. She can't speak English, so most of her characterization comes from her cutesy alien word salad ("Leeloo Dallas multipass!" she says sternly to a flight attendant) and wide-eyed naivety about Earth Stuff (There's war! But there's love! So confusing!). As is proven by the large number of unfortunate Leeloo cosplayers, a lot of people love this character. Personally, I find her kind of boring. 90% of her personality is her Ace bandage getup and crazy hair. What's that line from Clementine in Eternal Sunshine? Oh, yeah... "I apply my personality in a tube." Sorry, Leeloo.

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