I have to admit, I have never really loved this film like so many others do. Which is really surprising considering my general love for most things sci-fi. For whatever reason, when it was first released, The Fifth Element just didn’t appeal to me like I expected it too. I was hoping re-watching the film nearly twenty years later would change my opinion, and it did, but I still don’t think this film is great. It is good, Bruce Willis is always solid as a sarcastic reluctant hero, and Gary Oldman is clearly having fun hamming it up as the villain, but there is just something missing from this film.
Willis plays Korben Dallas, a cab driver of the future who gets caught up in a prophecy that predicts the end of the world unless five elements can be found that will prevent a mysterious alien race from coming to earth and destroying it. While four of the elements have been found (earth, fire, wind and water), a fifth one is still missing. Enter Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a young woman created in a lab using ancient pieces of the attacking aliens. She has something to do with the fifth element and ends up in Korben’s lap, where he decides, against his better judgement, to protect her from an evil megalomaniac (Gary Oldman) who wants to use this potentially upcoming war and profit from it.
First, let’s start with the positive: The special effects are really good, even accounting for the fact that this movie is almost twenty years old. The scenes of Willis flying around New York in his cab still look great on screen. Willis is a solid leading man and Oldman is fun as the villain, even if you do get the impression he may have been phoning this one in and only appeared as a favour to long-time friend Luc Besson, director of the film.
Now for the negative: Chris Tucker’s character is one of the most annoying things I have ever seen put on screen. I hated him the most when I originally saw this film and nothing has changed. His squeaky voice is so grating, and he has such a substantial role, I really struggled to follow anything when he was talking.
The movie aside, it sounds like this would have been quite an interesting set to work on, with controversies galore. Besson’s then wife, Maiwenn (I won’t mention she was 15 when they started dating and 16 when they married, while he was 33), had a small role in the film. Besson quickly dumped her for Milla Jovovich not long after filming ended. Being around that set must have been all kinds of awkward.
On set shenanigans aside, The Fifth Element is a decent science fiction story, but not as great as some would have you believe.
Every time I watch The Fifth Element I think, “This is it. This is the time I watch this movie and decide I actually hate it.” I mean, have you seen this movie? It’s so freaking weird. But time and again I come away from this really, really liking it. Weird as it may be, it’s just too damn entertaining to hate.
In a way, the weirdness of The Fifth Element is what drew me to the film in the first place. All sci-fi is strange in its own way, but what sets this apart is the brightness, color, and humor that pervades the entire film. Science fiction is overwhelmingly dark– lots of gloomy people dressed in drab clothing moving through dimly lit sets. But Element is maniacally cheery in a way. The clothing is outrageous and colorful. The action happens in broad daylight. People actually walk around with smiles on their faces. Even the music is upbeat in places. It’s refreshing.
Not that there isn’t a bit of the “doom and gloom” dystopian future trope going on here. In this vision of the future humans have really messed up the planet. So much so, that when our heroine Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is tasked with saving humanity, she struggles to see the point. It’s not the most subtle way to hold a mirror up to society, but this is not a subtle movie.
Case in point: nearly every performance presented in this film. Bruce Willis seems to be the only one playing it straight, repurposing his Die Hard persona, John McClane. Everyone else ranges from slightly over-the-top to wildly over-the-top. I actually like this, because it’s done so intentionally. I even like Chris Tucker’s character, who I understand is almost universally hated.
Let’s get real– this is not the best film ever made. It’s not even the best science fiction film ever made. I can definitely understand why it’s so polarizing, but I happily continue to call myself a fan. Sometimes you just want to watch something fun and visually gorgeous. It doesn’t all have to be cinematic gold.