Fifth Element, The (United States/France, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Fifth Element uses one of the newest tricks in the science fiction motion picture handbook: perform a visual and aural assault on viewers in the vain hope that they won't notice the lack of substance, logic, and intelligence. For a few recent examples of where this tactic has been employed, check out Stargate and Independence Day. The Fifth Element, the summer of 1997's first big-budget disappointment, is right at home in such company. A lot of money was spent on this film, but $100 million doesn't guarantee a good product. Maybe someone should have thought of spending a few more dollars on a better script.

Going into the film, I was guardedly optimistic. As a result of what I'd seen in the two-minute theatrical trailer, visions of Blade Runner danced in my head (I guarantee that no one in their right mind would make such a ludicrous association after seeing The Fifth Element). And the director, Luc Besson, is a well-respected artist whose short-but-impressive resume includes such international hits as La Femme Nikita and The Professional (Leon). I figured that if anyone could handle the task of putting together a rousing science fiction adventure with Bruce Willis in the lead, it was Besson. Alas, such is not the case.

What can I say about the storyline? There's not much there, and what there is, doesn't make a lot of sense. If you see The Fifth Element, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to reason out what's going on. In general, science fiction tales play fast and loose with reality, but here, it's so flagrant that even a moment's intelligent consideration of what's on the screen will shatter any hope of suspending disbelief.

The goal in The Fifth Element is to save Earth from a gargantuan evil that's hovering somewhere beyond the fringes of the solar system, blasting space ships as it waits around for forty-eight hours so our heroes can destroy it before it turns the planet into a cinder. Nothing can stop this nearly-omnipotent enemy (which looks like the Genesis planet from the Star Trek movies) except The Fifth Element -- the most powerful weapon ever devised. Things aren't straightforward, however, because the Fifth Element is actually a girl who can't speak English (Milla Jovovich), and she's missing four key stones without which she can't do her job. Pretty soon, there's a whole rogues' gallery of characters looking for the stones: an ex-government operative-turned-cab driver, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a new age priest (Ian Holm), a megalomaniac (Gary Oldman), and a bunch of ugly looking aliens. The quest, which starts on Earth during the twenty-third century, takes us to an outer space vacation resort where the stones are supposedly hidden.

The Fifth Element is populated by all manner of flashed, bangs, and booms. New York City, circa 2200, has been rendered with eye-popping splendor by the effects wizards at Digital Domain. (Check out rush hour in the future if you think it's bad now...) Bright colors -- reds, oranges, and yellows -- are in evidence everywhere, from Bruce Willis' outfit to Milla Jovovich's hair. And Eric Serra's throbbing, cacophonous score tests the limits of theater speakers. On a purely visceral level, it's impossible to deny that The Fifth Element has an impact.

When it comes time to discuss the rest of the movie, however, there's not much to talk about. When a wisecracking actor like Bruce Willis and a hammy performer like Gary Oldman are reduced to ineffectual bystanders, there's a problem. Willis and Oldman don't have much to do, and, when they're on screen, they fade into the background, dwarfed by the special effects. Willis, whose John McLane is the Die Hard series, is used to taking center stage, but he can't compete with the visual busy-ness of The Fifth Element, and that makes him a pretty dull hero. Meanwhile, with her fiery hair and occasionally-revealing costumes, Jovovich makes an impression, although her effectiveness has little to do with acting and less to do with dialogue (she doesn't have much to say). Only Chris Tucker, who plays an insanely energetic, over-the-top talk show host (a loquacious Dennis Rodman in outer space) manages to hold his own amidst the digital chaos, but his outrageousness starts to wear thin after about two minutes.

I will give Besson some credit. He never takes things too seriously, which is a good idea, because a somber version of The Fifth Element would have made it a candidate for the year's Bottom 10 list. The director, working from a comic book-type script that he co-wrote with Robert Mark Kamen (and which bears a certain resemblance to one of the segments of Heavy Metal), injects a ton of offbeat, sporadically-effective humor into the movie, frequently causing The Fifth Element to cross over the line into self-parody. This unique approach kills any possible sense of adventure or suspense (the numerous action scenes are obligatory and perfunctory, and never remotely exciting), but it at least offers something unusual.

Once The Fifth Element's assault on the senses starts to wear off, it's easy to become restless. After all, in keeping with the "epic" sweep demanded by such an obese budget, the film had to clock in at over two hours, even though there's no excuse for a movie with so little going on to last for so long. At least the payoff is worthwhile in a campy sense. Where else can you see sweat wrung from a handkerchief become integral to saving the world? Besson may have misfired with The Fifth Element, but at least he does it with flair and a sense of humor.

Fifth Element, The (United States/France, 1997)

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry
Screenplay: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Eric Serra
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 1997-05-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1