Looking back at The Fifth Element

Luc Besson brought us one of the most flamboyant sci-fi films of the 90s with The Fifth Element. Sarah takes a fond look back...

Cards on the table: I love The Fifth Element. I almost didn’t bother watching it again to write this feature; I’ve seen it so many times over the years I can recite half of it from memory. But that’d be cheating. And, anyway, why pass up a chance to re-watch one of the most outlandish, ridiculous, brilliant sci-fi movies ever made?

Plot-wise, The Fifth Element treads some pretty familiar ground. There’s a massive evil monstrous thing threatening to destroy the world, and in order to save the day, a group of disparate individuals need to team up to find the magical thingummy that’ll defeat the big nasty in the nick of time. That’s the plot of pretty much everything ever, including Transformers and Star Wars.

But what makes The Fifth Element special is the way it takes everything to extremes. The threat here isn’t just a super villain, or an alien, or whatever; it’s the embodiment of evil. And if it’s not stopped, it’ll wipe out all life on Earth in one go. That’s a pretty huge threat. The only person who can hope to defeat it isn’t some random teenage boy, or even a team of spandex-clad crime-fighters: it’s the Supreme Being, someone who’s utterly perfect. 

This isn’t a film that’s particularly interested in the subtleties of plot or character; it’s setting up the ultimate conflict – good versus evil, light versus dark, creation versus destruction, love versus hate – and story is only really important as a framework to hang that on. There’s a kind of grandeur to it that could seem arrogant or pretentious, but The Fifth Element is way too much fun for that. It’s funny, too, and has a kind of endearing goofiness to it, but the main thing it has going for it is that it’s stunningly gorgeous to look at.

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In our post-Matrix blockbuster landscape, the only colours most films bother with are teal and orange. And in fairness, there’s quite a lot of both bright orange and bright blue in The Fifth Element. But there’s also a lot of bright red, glaring white, and searing yellows. This is a film that delights in colour, and splashes it about everywhere. Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier famously designed the costumes, and his typically over the top style meshes perfectly with director Luc Besson’s futuristic vision.

(Oddly, it tends to be background characters who get the best costumes – like the McDonald’s employee glimpsed briefly in one scene, in a fluorescent red wig with the golden arches built into it, or the airline staff with their skin-tight blue bustiers and matching eyebrows. Everywhere you look in this movie, there’s something worth looking at.)

To some extent, the film is set in a dream world, a glamorous world of excess. But writer/director Luc Besson started writing The Fifth Element when he was just 16, and spent a lot of time figuring out the details of the world his characters inhabit. A little bit of dirt and ordinariness has been allowed to creep in around the edges; so Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) might drive a flying taxi for a living, but New York still has traffic jams. When he first encounters Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), they manage to escape from the police by plunging into the thick smog that hangs over the city’s lower levels; Dallas still smokes, despite the flashing lights on his Orwellian cigarette dispenser urging him to quit. And when our heroes get to the airport, it’s piled high with rubbish, even while robots pour their drinks. 

Those things might seem like throwaway jokes, but they also help give the film’s setting some credibility. Besson might not be particularly interested in drawing complex characters, but he’s clearly put a lot of effort into world-building, and it pays off at the film’s climax. Because for the final scenes to have any emotional weight, we need to believe two things: one, that this is a real world that’s in danger, and two, that there’s a chance Leeloo might actually decide not to save it.

The montage of world wars that she watches to get caught up on her history lessons is a little heavy-handed, maybe, but it’s the closest the film gets to making a real point – which is that, as a species, we tend to fuck things up a lot. And the tiny glimpses of the messes our future selves have made of their world help make that feel like an organic conclusion to come to, rather than a conveniently slotted-in final hurdle for our heroes.

Obviously, all of that seriousness is quickly brushed away as Dallas teaches Leeloo all about the power of love with a fairytale kiss, and there’s a happy ending, but it’s worth noting that The Fifth Element isn’t complete fluff. It’s just… mostly fluff, with a bit of a moral lesson tucked inside. As much as I love it, I still couldn’t quite argue that it’s a perfect film. It definitely has its failings, mostly to do with character motivations. It never quite explains, for example, why space-Hitler Zorg (Gary Oldman) would team up with an entity that’s going to wipe out all life on Earth, besides the fact that the film needed a baddie with a human face. But it’s such a pleasure to watch that it’s hard to mind too much. 

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Why does it matter that the opening scene is basically nonsense? Who cares if there are way too many characters, and half of them don’t do anything? It’s gorgeous, ambitious, extravagant, and impossible to pin down – just when you think you’ve got a handle on the film, it’ll throw in something bizarre like Chris Tucker as a leopardprint-clad radio host or Tricky as a (very English-sounding) hardman. It’s lavish, luxurious, and irresistibly quotable. 

And, of course, it’s the movie that gave us Milla Jovovich, action heroine. Before The Fifth Element, Jovovich was a model dabbling in music, with a couple of acting credits to her name. Afterwards, she became one of the go-to actresses when you needed someone to kick something’s ass.

And rightly so. She’s fantastic here, managing to make Leeloo both utterly alien and totally relatable. She’s beautiful, vulnerable, awkward, and a complete badass. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role, but Jovovich almost didn’t get it. The casting call attracted over 8,000 hopefuls, and Besson saw several hundred of them, rejecting them all. Jovovich, apparently, seemed too glamorous, too put-together to play a weirdo alien. But when she ran into Luc Besson in a hotel bar a few weeks later, wearing ratty jeans and t-shirt, he decided to give her a screen test, and she won him over. 

Even then, he made her work for the part. Jovovich trained for four months, learning karate and ballet, and Besson also sent her to the zoo to study the movements of the birds and lions. The divine language that Leeloo speaks in the film consisted of 400 words that Besson made up and then taught to Jovovich; by the time the cameras were rolling, they could write one another letters in their own secret language.

It sounds like a hell of a lot of effort to go to, but it paid off. On screen, Jovovich is mesmerising, creating a character who’s instantly iconic, and a perfect saviour for the weird and wonderful world she inhabits. It might have taken him years of planning and thinking and designing, but Besson ultimately managed to find all of the right, ahem, elements, to make a truly special movie.

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