Sunday, June 1, 2014

Parody? Philosophy? The Fifth Element Still Entertains!

The Good: Concept, Entertaining, Most of the special effects, Basic plot
The Bad: Unremarkable acting, Light on character development, Some of the make-up effects.
The Basics: Packed with archetypes as opposed to viable characters, The Fifth Element is nevertheless an entertaining science fiction film.

Every now and then, I like to go back and watch movies for which there was a lot of hype, but which bombed at the box office. Back in my last year of college, The Fifth Element got quite a bit of hype and it was built-up to be the next Star Wars. However, upon its release, it was panned by the critics and it never truly found its audience (even among science fiction lovers). All I remembered about The Fifth Element was the “twist” about what the Fifth Element actually was. I had a friend in college who thought that the nature of the element was one of the coolest concepts she had seen and I remember being appreciative of that idea as well. But there was nothing else I truly recalled about the film, which inspired me to rewatch it tonight.

The Fifth Element is, more than the logical successor to Star Wars, the logical precursor to The Chronicles Of Riddick (reviewed here!). Like that later film, The Fifth Element devotes a great deal of time to establishing a viable universe and in that way it succeeds. Unlike The Chronicles Of Riddick, The Fifth Element does not devote much time to serious character establishment or development. Instead, The Fifth Element is preoccupied with creating a philosophy and theology of the universe it portrays and then packing the movie with fast-moving action sequences . . . and an opera. Personally, I like how the film stops for a few minutes of music appreciation while the heroine kicks some ass, but the film is more erratic than clever and that undermines it some.

Opening in Egypt in 1914, a small team of archeologists translates runes in the Great Pyramids to indicate that every five thousand years, a great evil visits Earth and kills many people. The runes also indicate that there are five elements that, when combined, can help to stop the great oncoming evil. When a devotee of an obscure order tries to kill the chief archaeologist on the Pyramids project, the team there is shocked when alien visitors arrive and recover four stones and a sarcophagus containing the fabled fifth element. They charge the devotee with passing on the knowledge of how to stop the great evil before they leave Earth.

Three hundred years later, a giant, malevolent energy field approaches Earth. When the military fails to successfully destroy it, the President Of The Federated Planets takes counsel from Father Vito Cornelius. Cornelius declares that the oncoming darkness can be stopped by the light of the universe, which would be created through bringing the five elements together in a specific place and time. When the Mondoshawan craft bringing the elements back to work is attacked and destroyed, all hope seems lost. But from the wreckage, a hand is recovered and scientists reconstitute a woman who is apparently genetically perfect and possesses hundreds of thousands of DNA base pairs more than are needed. She escapes into New York City. She falls into the floating cab of Korben Dallas, who helps her escape the police. Dallas takes the woman, Leeloo, to Father Vito Cornelius, who recognizes her as the one who his order has awaited.

At the same time, the industrialist and corrupt weapon’s manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg – who hired the aliens that destroyed the Mondoshawan vessel – is angered when he discovers his mercenary aliens were unable to recover the four stones he sent them to get. Zorg tries to get information from Cornelius, but the monk refuses to help the businessman. Conscripted by the military and thanks to a rigged radio contest, Korbin and Leeloo (and an annoying celebrity interviewer, Ruby Rhod) journey to Fhloston, Paradise to recover the stones (which the Mondoshawan’s cunningly sent via another route) from the opera singer Diva Plavalaguna. Under the influence of the shadow creature native to the zone of evil that is hanging outside the Sol system, Mr. Zorg hunts the stones on Fhloston himself. In the ensuing conflict, Leeloo and Dallas reveal their true potentials in their attempt to recover the stones and save the Earth.

The Fifth Element bends a serious threat to the Earth in a somewhat preposterous nebulous evil which may or may not be a planet come to impact with Earth with a number of fastly-delivered jokes and visual gags. The result is a movie that tries to be both tense and a parody of tense. And while the film has some moments of smart philosophy – the fifth element is a woman it seems – the concept is kept ridiculously simple – love and emotion are all that can combat the hatred of the nebulous evil.

On the character front, The Fifth Element is packed with monolithic characters. For every line that Bruce Willis delivers to create backstory for Korben Dallas, there are about five minutes of him running and shooting overlarge weapons or driving his floating cab at high speeds. But what little characterization there is for Dallas, the details seem remarkably generic. He is a former soldier with an ex-wife and a nagging mother. He is a loner who does not want to get involved . . . but does anyway and he is forced into a situation where he becomes the one man who can save the world. This becomes especially ridiculous at the film’s climax when Cornelius’s monk assistant asks Dallas for information on the mechanics of using the four stolen stones as opposed to the guy who has studied that very topic his entire life. So, Korben Dallas is written as a generic action hero whose skill set is not evident until the very moment it becomes plot-relevant and whose ability to love and connect only comes into play as a climactic event.

That is not to say that The Fifth Element is unpleasant. From the film’s outset when giant steampunk alien robots appear in the Egyptian pyramids, there is something that feels original and clever about the universe of The Fifth Element. The Diva is pretty awesome and her hiding place for the stones is neat as well. Sadly, the villain is equally generic as the hero.

On the acting front, there is nothing superlative in The Fifth Element. Chris Tucker plays his usual manic style character as Ruby Rhod, Bruce Willis is a generic action hero in the role of Dallas. In fact, Willis unfortunately breaks a number of times in scenes with Tucker and that director Luc Besson did not demand a second (or third or beyond) take to get the scenes right is unfortunate. The usual amazing Gary Oldman drives the budget for The Fifth Element as the villain Zorg, a role where he essentially plays Paul Rubens playing Zorg. Milla Jovovich is fine as Leeloo, though she does not bring much to the role outside her body and the ability to speak gibberish for much of the film.

Despite its flaws, it is easy to see how The Fifth Element. The story is ambitious enough to be worthy of a film and the setting is clever enough to feel unlike anything else on the big screen, even if the characters and performances are painfully unremarkable.

For other philosophical science fiction films, check out my reviews of:
The Matrix
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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