Directed and Co-Written by Luc Besson
May 7, 1997
As an ancient evil races through the stars, the survival of Earth depends on a cabdriver and an unusual woman of mysterious origin.
The Fifth Element is one of those movies that has grown on me over the years. When I first saw it I thought it was only okay but now I just love it. It is a bit of a bonkers and silly ride that takes itself just seriously but not too seriously thus giving it the spirit of the original Star Wars films. There are crazy action sequences and fanciful aliens existing in a fun adventure story.
This movie was made at a time when Bruce Willis was at his most Bruce Willis. He was the action star that was the bridge between the ridiculously good physicality of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and the mere mortal population of Earth. Willis came to the project after Hudson Hawk and Billy Bathgate which were not well received.
Here as Korben Dallas, Willis is an everyman cab driver who when the story requires it is a former special forces best of the best type. In a film that has more in common with Star Wars than something more serious like Aliens such a switch is perfectly fine. You just go “Cool” and move on.
Milla Jovovich was cast as Leeloo who in the context of the film is a perfect being. I expected some origin reveal in the story, but her precise origin is never really mentioned. One could presume she was created on the same planet as the Mondoshawans, the aliens from the beginning scene of the movie, are from but nothing is ever really said. She at most she is just a passenger on their downed ship from which she is recovered. I cannot imagine getting away with that these days. People want everything handed to them and are unwilling to use their imagination to fill in gaps that do not affect the story.
The goal of this great evil is to get to Earth to the temple from the opening sequence and use it to spread its life consuming evil throughout the universe because that is what life consuming evil does. But there are some things that a powerful space dwelling being cannot do and one of those is gather the magic stones that allow access to the powers of the temple.
Helping this evil entity accomplish its goal of the annihilation of all life is a human being named Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg played by the legendary Gary Oldman. How he came to be in the service of this life destroying entity and what he ultimately hopes to gain from it is truthfully a little uncertain to me. He is just a bad guy doing bad things but it is Gary Oldman and he is so good at this.
Zorg is a villainous loon. He is all ego and dick moves. He treats people like garbage and casually kills over failure. Zorg commands an industrial empire and does whatever it takes to get the job done. That might even include doing it himself because his goons just cannot.
Tiny Lister plays the President of the Federated Territories. At the time I could not figure out why you would cast him. I only knew him as Zeus from the then WWF as well as the Hulk Hogan schlockfest starring vehicle No Holds Barred. He is way better than that immediate pedigree would have you believe.
This was the film that helped make Chris Tucker a thing. As the flamboyant Ruby Rhod whose radio show provides Dallas and Leeloo with a way to sneak on board in order to get the stones that activate the device (?) that will save the day. He stole the screen with his over-the-top performance.
One thing I never caught until it was pointed out on Facebook was that the hero and the villain never meet in this film. In fact, there is no indication the even know the other exists or is involved with what is going on. The President of the Federated Territories certainly knows about the two as does the Mondoshawans’ current human contact on Earth Priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) but there is no indication Zorg or Dallas is fully informed on the other. The closest we come to a connection is when Dallas loses his cab driving job which is implied to be part of the million cabdrivers that Zorg fired but we cannot be certain Dallas knew he was working in any way for Zorg’s business empire. I cannot think of any other movie I have seen where the hero and the villain do not meet and are probably not aware of the others existence. There are some where the villain and hero are never in the same room together, but they do know against whom they struggle. Not here. Props to Besson.
Besson reportedly began writing this film out of boredom when he was 16 and only got to do it when he was in his late 30s. That would put the beginnings of the story around the time of the original Star Wars, and you can tell they draw from the same source. The script was originally around 400 pages but was trimmed down over time. Names changed and elements were lost. The “Divine Language” spoken by Leeloo in the film was created by Besson and contains about 400 words. Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières were behind the film’s production design. It definitely has a feel and a look that a largely American production would not.
Themes of consumerism pepper the film with Zorg’s use of and obsession with the latest tech. There is also the occasional subversion of masculinity as personified by Ruby Rhod who is utterly irresistible to women yet is what we would perhaps consider effeminate. There is the theme of love as depicted by the growing relationship between Dallas and Leeloo which also provides for the titular fifth element which is love. Is it not always? Just like the mission in the story is on a clock, the relationship between Dallas and Leeloo has a deadline as well. Leeloo must accept Dallas’s feelings in order to defeat the evil.
My major complaint about The Fifth Element is the opening scene in Egypt. It just really did nothing for me and seems like an unnecessary addition. I think a few lines of dialogue could have certainly set up the need for the desert temple in the finale and explained everything that was done in those moments. It was nice to see some cool looking aliens but the scene itself was just rather pointless.
The Fifth Element is a great film. It is a fun ride, and it is one of those films that get better with age. Not many can do that. Watch it!