Saturday, May 20, 2017

Review: The Fifth Element (1997)

The Fifth Element (1997)

Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity

Score: 5 out of 5

The Fifth Element is a film that, when it came out in 1997, must've knocked audiences flat on their asses. Combining classic space opera, ancient astronauts, visuals lifted from Franco-Belgian comics, and the Euro-action style of Luc Besson, it still feels revolutionary watching it in 2017; only recently have Hollywood's more esoteric science fiction and fantasy films come close to what remains one of the most daring and far-out action blockbusters ever made. It is beautiful, it is vibrant, it is campy, it is funny, it is steamy, and while few would accuse it of being particularly smart, it's not stupid, either. It is a big sci-fi epic-with-a-capital-E in the vein of Star Wars, as made by the French with all the style that entails. It is a film that I, raised on the movies that came in its wake, still wasn't quite ready for. It is a big, boisterous masterpiece.

At first glance, you might not expect something so groundbreaking just from reading the plot description. Every five thousand years, a being of pure evil enters our galaxy to devour all life, and a race of aliens called the Mondoshawans has stopped it every time it tried. The forecast calls for the evil to return in the mid-23rd century, and when it arrives in the form of a big, ugly ball of fire, it shrugs off every torpedo and laser fired at it and destroys the human spaceships that launched them. The Mondoshawans come to Earth to perform the ritual... only to get shot down by agents of Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), a sinister CEO serving as the evil's pawn on Earth. The only survivor is Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a "perfect being" created as the key piece of the ritual to destroy the evil, the "fifth element" after earth, water, fire, and air. Brought to Earth, Leeloo escapes captivity and literally lands up in the taxi of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a New York cabbie, small-time crook, and Special Forces veteran who soon finds himself dragged into a quest to find four stones needed to complete the ritual. Together with Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), a member of a human order devoted to the Mondoshawans and their ritual, and Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), a flamboyant talk show host, Korben and Leeloo must cross the galaxy and back in order to stop the evil, staying one step ahead of Zorg and his goons along the way.

You can boil all of that down to "good guys fighting to stop bad guys using some mumbo-jumbo", and not miss a beat. Hell, the film doesn't even give any real character to the evil entity beyond "it's evil", instead letting Zorg serve as the film's primary villain. It's an old cliche to say this, but this is a film that's more about the journey than the destination. Besson is far more interested in showcasing the breathtaking sights of the galaxy for the viewer to soak up, from a futuristic New York that makes present-day New York look like a decrepit ghost town to a luxurious spacefaring cruise ship that comes complete with a world-class concert hall. Korben's taxi is styled like a flying Checker cab, and the New York he inhabits looks more Art Deco than The Jetsons, often looking dirty and used but still feeling lived-in and full of character and history. The characters' fashions are all varying levels of strange, with Korben's Day-Glo orange tank top being positively restrained and conservative compared to his fellows, yet they somehow never felt weird for weirdness' sake; they helped establish a character with only a look, from Ruby Rhod's obnoxious clothing showing off an obnoxious personality to Leeloo's cluelessness as to her sexuality. The various aliens our heroes encounter, from a blue-skinned opera singer to the shape-shifting lizards that Zorg hires as his minions, are all brought to life with high-quality effects work and simple yet effective design. This is not a film that was aiming to create a particularly realistic vision of the future -- it's pure space opera, almost as much a fantasy story as it is science fiction, and it knows it and owns it. It's a world that feels vaguely attached to our own, but has gone off in radical directions we can't even imagine. The special effects that bring it all to life are mind-blowing, their combination of practical work, computer animation, and stylization still holding up today (arguably looking better than many modern films, in fact), even as many effects-driven blockbusters from that time have gone from cutting-edge to downright ugly. It is a film that one must sit down and watch in order to get the full effect, to take it all in.

The performances are similarly heightened, which is once again part of the fun. Bruce Willis plays Korben as the straight man, a 23rd-century version of John McClane thrust into a situation that he is in no way ready for, serving as the audience's viewpoint into the world they're exploring while providing great humor with his deadpan reactions. He carries most of the weight in the action scenes, obviously, and while said action scenes aren't as out-of-this-world as the rest of the film's visual design, Besson still delivers plenty of mid-late '90s, pre-Matrix action goodness. Chris Tucker's Ruby is a character that people who see this movie tend to either adore or despise, a loud-mouthed, peacocked ladies' man whose outlandish outfits somehow fail to overshadow his force of personality; personally, I thought he was hilarious as the film's comic relief, a man who Besson must have instinctively known would get on the audience's nerves and thus used more often than not as the butt of the joke. Ian Holm is comparatively serious in his part as Father Vito, there mainly to serve as the exposition regarding all of the circumstances the audience is being introduced to, while Gary Oldman's Zorg is one slimy little dandy, between his aristocratic Southern accent and the high-tech gadgetry he surrounds himself with. The centerpiece, however, is the titular fifth element herself, Leeloo. This is a role that Milla Jovovich was born to play, a gorgeous, ethereal beauty who can kick loads of ass yet also wonders about her role in the universe and whether or not humanity is worth saving. She could easily have fallen into horribly cliched territory, the resolution of her story turning downright schmaltzy, but her and Willis' performances at the end are what sold it for me.

The Bottom Line

Visually striking and well put-together in its own right, The Fifth Element serves up a bold, original vision of the future with a damn fine action flick at its core. Even watching it now, it not only still holds up, it makes many of today's sci-fi blockbusters look bad.

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