Torture who you have to. The President, I don’t care. Just bring me those stones. You have one hour. -Zorg
The Fifth Element is the greatest video game movie ever made. It moves from set piece to set piece with frantic action, quotable humor, and a shamelessly absurd plot. There are four elements (not five!) that really make the film stand on its own even thirteen years and six generations of special effects later: the characters, the humor, the music, and the stunning visuals.
The film features Bruce Willis when he still had most of his hair and Milla Jovovich before she exclusively starred in video game adaptations for her husband. Chris Tucker tags along, being so annoying that you start looking for a sold out Jackie Chan. Gary Oldman’s Zorg is one of the most ludicrously over the top and entertaining villains in science fiction, that particular sort of antagonist in which Alan Rickman used to specialize, the kind who doesn’t just sell the world out but relishes every nuance of his malice. Destruction, he insists, is every bit as important as creation. Ian Holm channels a strange combination of robed Obi-Wan and stuttering hobbit. Even Luke Perry makes an appearance as a random wannabe Indiana Jones assistant during the film’s introduction.
These characters succeed because they both fit into clear archetypes and yet exist with so much individual color and texture that they feel more like the individuals the archetypes are based upon than characters based upon the archetypes. And the humor! The film remains one of the most quotable films ever made. Every time I go through airport security, I have to restrain myself from holding up my ID and telling them “Leeloo Dallas, multipass.” The music too is otherworldly, like they took the basic germ of John Williams’ Star Wars scores and shot it up with acid. The direction of the film is fantastic, full of little touches that make the film crackle. There’s the beautiful fight scene interspersed with the Diva’s solo, the music both heard by some characters and offering a soundtrack to others. On occasion the film cuts back and forth between groups so that the effect is one large conversation that only the audience hears.
Director Luc Besson creates a vivid and rich world that is at once believable and patently absurd. The world itself is a terrifically unique creation, not necessarily in all the details, which borrow heavily from the gamut of science fiction, but in the overall execution. It has police state brutality, familiar homages to Blade Runner, Brazil, 1984, but it isn’t a dystopia per se. It has heroes, breathtaking sights and architecture, wondrous creatures (who doesn’t want one of those genetically engineered miniature elephants?), but is hardly utopian either. It’s gritty and violent, referencing the modern culture of business, celebrity, and politics, but is anything but a realistic projection of today into the future. What it is, is a glorious fantasy, a world that would be a delight to explore for all its charms and terrors. The nearest thing to it in form are the vast and open sandboxes of computer role playing games.
There are a lot of movies, especially movies based on them, that people say “are just like a video game.” Generally that’s considered an insult, it is just a shorthand for constant ludicrous action with little plot. Oh that’s like a certain subset of video games to be sure, but the movies and games cut from that same mold rarely feel like each other. Take Resident Evil, a film based on a video game and roundly dismissed as feeling like a video game. The thing is, watching that movie doesn’t feel the slightest like playing one of the Resident Evil games. Hell, it doesn’t feel like a video game at all, it just shares some of the same trappings. Van Helsing is the same way. Constant action and lousy plot in and of themselves do not make a movie feel like a video game, they just make it feel like the aftermath of a laxative. Watching The Fifth Element, though, differs in that it actually feels like the experience of many video games, though it is not itself based on one (we’ll just ignore the movie tie-in video game it spawned, which sucked and no one played anyway).
The weakest part of the film though is the broader story, but it is difficult to classify just how much of a problem that is. A giant ball of pure evil shows up and hangs out above Earth, as it is apparently wont to do every five thousand years or so. Why is it there? Why Earth? Why not one of the hundreds of other planets that have been alluded to? Lord knows, we were nothing special on an intergalactic level five thousand years ago. Where did these silly magic stones come from that defeat the evil? Why don’t they have a proper operating manual? The scene towards the end of Leeloo finding out just what bastards humans are, and Dallas’s convincing her that love matters is absolutely painful to watch, and not in a good way.
Unresolved questions about the basic events of the film can be good or bad. The difference between the fact that neither District 9 nor Signs explains why their respective aliens came, is that in one we can anticipate interesting answers from the provided context whereas in the other we do not. The Fifth Element fails this test though; the setup is absurd, and we are not assured in any way that the answers to those questions wouldn’t be equally absurd. The reason it is palatable here is that the film simply is not science fiction but fantasy in a futuristic setting. That’s hair splitting to be sure, but then if thousand-word articles on thirteen-year-old movies are not an appropriate venue for hair splitting, what is?
The bottom line is that all of the flaws and strengths of The Fifth Element still add up to fun.
Officer: “Sir, are you classified as human?”
Korben Dallas: “Negative, I am a meat popsicle.”
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.