Director Luc Besson might plead the Fifth if asked about some of the elements from his futuristic adventure that bear resemblance to a certain George Lucas space saga—like priests in brown robes who sink back when there's a disturbance in the force, and creatures that look like they could have sidled up to the bar at the Cantina or cuddled next to Jabba the Hutt. Then again, he wrote it when he was a teenager, so who'd remember? And the irony is that for all the Jedi and creature flashbacks you might have while watching "The Fifth Element," it's possible that Lucas learned one thing from Besson's flamboyantly crazy and funny film: don't give your goofiest character the spotlight so close to the film's end. It mucks things up.
That's what happens in Besson's film, where a flaming TV/radio-host skips about with a slender headset and thumping theme music right around the time that the fate of life as we know it is about to teeter on the brink. And while life-as-we-know-it continues to teeter, Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) keeps prattling and prancing away in a way that was humorous for the first ten minutes, but then starts to grate on you as much as a certain Jamaican-accented Gungan, meesa thinks—distracting from an ending that should have packed more punch. I mean, this WAS supposed to be doomsday.
But in the end, the end doesn't matter. It's the ride that counts, and Besson takes viewers on a wild one. With a big budget reportedly in the 90 million range, Besson combines a plot involving "Atlantis" stone mysticism with "Star Wars"/"Star Trek" aliens, outlandish "Barbarella" outfits, and a kind of "Bladerunner"/"Zoolander" cyberpunk feel and soundtrack. And who better to play a former hero and current taxi driver about to help save the world than that old diehard, Bruce Willis? "The Fifth Element" is as visually stimulating as a video game and has all the audio excitement of really wild music video. In short, it's a lot of fun, from start to finish—despite the amount of camera time Besson gives his goofy TV/radio-host and some muddled moments.
I'm usually a little wary of futuristic films. Jules Verne set the bar pretty high, and more than a few "visionaries" since then have simply lacked the imagination or the sense of culture, science and technology to map out an interesting but still believable scenario for future life. Flamboyant cyberpunk costumes aside, Besson and his designers come up with enough little things in daily life where you notice them and think, Yes, of course!, or else his futuristic gizmos give us the same pleasure as those prehistoric gadgets from "The Flintstones." Yes, there are the obligatory flying cars (and even a flying cruise ship), but the futuristic cityscape looks perfectly believable and takes a backseat to the futuristic interiors and objects of daily life. This is a fast-paced film, and part of that is the result of futuristic images that flash in front of us with breakneck speed. There's an element of funk to it all, and the music reinforces that notion. Add a liberal dose of humor throughout, as Besson does with this sometimes hilarious, sometimes tense film, and you've got a winner—despite some of the mumbo-jumbo about four elements and a fifth element or it's death forever not making total sense. But don't think too hard about the logic. Just kick back and plug in your senses and enjoy the stimulation.
Willis plays Korben Dallas, an ex-Major who has an ostentatious shelf of trophies and medals in his kitchen to prove how good he was. But now he's driving a New York City cab, and in the future the second you make a mistake a voice announces that points have been taken off your driver's license. He's down to like five, so he's ripe for being bamboozled into taking the mission that he's going to be offered. But we don't see Willis until the third scene. "The Fifth Element" begins in Egypt in 1914, where an archaeologist is figuring out a wall of hieroglyphs that holds the secret of the ultimate battle between good and evil. There's a priest who is about to kill the fellow and his assistant (Luke Perry, from the old "Beverly Hills, 90210" TV show) because they're getting too close. Then a spaceship that looks like a giant tuberous vegetable lands and a bunch of aliens in double-wide armor that makes them look like coppery Weebles enters. It turns out that these Mondoshawan are actually the GOOD guys, and in an attempt to clue us in on what's to follow we get a quick explanation about positioning stones from the four elements (earth, wind, fire, air) in four corners and a fifth element standing in the middle. That will create a superpower that will defeat evil in the ultimate battle. They grab the stones that the priest had been guarding and tell him he's to train a successor.
Cut to 300 years later and a governmental war room of presumably the United States or a new Federation. That's not as clear as the threat. It seems a giant flaming and festering ball of evil that resembles the Death Star with a molten surface is heading toward earth, and warships attempt to destroy it. Call this "Yet Another 48 Hours," because that's how much time the planet has before the evil blob acclimates to Earth's atmosphere and wreaks its havoc. Cut again to a bare-chested Willis being awakened by a futuristic alarm, going through his morning motions, and disarming a drugged-out punk with a weird-looking gun who greets him the moment he opens his door. Welcome to the 23rd Century!
Korben is enlisted by his old commander to meet a contact on an exotic resort ship in order to get the stones from her. As it turns out, he's not the only one after the stones. Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman), who's dressed like the ultimate cyberpunk but talks like Jethro Clampett, seems to serve the evil blob. He wants the stones, and so he hires the Mangalores, a bunch of alien morphing mercenaries, to help him get them. Also involved is a "practically perfect" woman, and we're not talking Mary Poppins. Milla Jovovich stars as Leeloo, the great red-aired hope and "fifth element." In one of the coolest and most visionary sequences in the film, a gloved hand is brought to a lab and we watch machines totally reconstruct the destroyed human who was once attached to that hand from DNA. And to the delight of these leering lab men, they end up constructing a beautiful naked woman. She speaks only the language of the Gods, and spooked by her surroundings she bolts and does a high dive into air-traffic, only to fall into Korben's cab. Thus begins a crazy odyssey that careens from here to absurdity en route to that inevitable final confrontation with evil.
Thankfully the production values are up to the task of delivering the potpourri of images Besson throws at us. "The Fifth Element" is presented in 2.35: 1 anamorphic widescreen, remastered for this Ultimate (2-disc) Edition in High Definition so that the colors are clear and vibrant, and the images sharp no matter what the lighting. Excellent quality!
Oh, yeah! With both the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 options, the soundtrack really hops and pops, with all sorts of zings and zips crossing the audio field and plenty of rear-speaker action from start to finish. The sound ROCKS, plain and simple. The spoken language is English, with subtitles in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Thai.
There's no commentary, but the special features produced by Mirage Productions are quite good—all 120 minutes of them. There IS a full-length trivia fact track that's plenty fun, and enjoyable behind-the-scenes featurettes on The Alien Element, The Digital Element, The Visual Element, The Star Element, and The Fashion Element, plus another on The Diva—which would have been titled "The Diva Element" if it wasn't the sixth featurette. The format for the extras is really pretty nice. Each short feature has the usual blend of clips and talking heads, but those are accompanied by tests. The Visual Element, for example, features tests from six different sets, and The Star Element has, in addition to short blips on Willis, Tucker, and Jovovich, four Jovovich screen tests, and The Fashion Element has one Korben and three Leeloo tests. The best of the bunch are the Diva and Alien segments. The Diva feature includes an interview—the first time that the woman has apparently spoken about the subject—with Maiwenn, who played the operatic Diva on the resort ship. It turns out that she was Besson's fiancée at the time. The creature feature includes a segment on Zorg's pet, Picasso, and another on Strikers, long-snouted alien sanitation workers that never made it into an underground scene where subway commuters go here and there against a mound of rubble. It's far from the best collection of features for a high-tech, special effects-oriented film, but what's here is, as I've said, quite good. The thing is, the features only whet your appetite for more.
Some of the acting is as befits a genre film, and there are those muddy moments where you're not quite sure exactly what's going on. But Besson pulls everything together in order to produce an ultimately satisfying film. Maybe he should direct a screwball comedy next, because Besson skillfully juggles simultaneous plot threads and characters, cutting from Korben and Leeloo's antics to the Mangalores, to Zorg, to Ruby Rhod, to the president and his aides, and to the priest (Ian Holm) and his new assistant. With this film, he certainly proves that he's got a good sense of comedy, managing to combine laughs with top-notch futuristic action and drama, so that it all somehow works together. "The Fifth Element" is missing a few things that would make it a great film, but as it is it's a very good one.