Bruce Willis pulls another fast one—successfully!

 

The Clone Wars

Despite its obvious influences,
The Fifth Element
manages to deliver
a new space fantasy.

by Coury Turczyn

 

All science fiction cinema fans desire one thing more than any other–even more than having William Shatner magically shed 30 years off his age–and that's a movie they can love. But it hasn't been easy to find one, even despite the yearly barrage of would-be blockbusters. Studios certainly have faith in the genre, spending untold millions on blinking breastplates, laser blasters, and tons of molded latex. Unfortunately, all this effort is directed toward producing sci-fi epics that exist in places we've been before–whole universes that seem just like the universe we saw last summer.

Remember these oldies but goodies?

Road Warrior Universe: Ye olde post-apocalyptic desertscape chock-full of leather-clad guys with mohawks who drive around looking for trouble. Of course, Waterworld really revolutionized this whole concept by substituting water for sand–genius!

Blade Runner Universe: Overpopulated, decaying, urban megalopolis set in the near future, full of buzzing hover-cars, spike-haired cyberpunks, and moody lighting. Judge Dredd really infused new life into this world by inserting Sylvester Stallone wearing giant chrome shoulder pads.

Alien Universe: Lots of really stupid people crawling through cramped, dark tunnels looking for ticked-off creatures with sharp teeth. Crunch! Species and The Relic turned this concept on its ear by…uh, having really stupid people crawl through cramped, dark tunnels looking for ticked-off creatures with sharp teeth.

Finally, of course, there's the Utopian Universe of Ongoing Conflicts, where armies of really nice people battle some really bad people to save the universe–over and over. These movie series–Star Trek and Star Wars–don't have imitators so much as they simply imitate themselves in sequels. (And I won't even go into the Video Game Universe, the Invaders From Space Universe, or the waning Big Brother Universe.)

Yawn. Why isn't there any place new to go?

Well, there is The Fifth Element. Although you can certainly detect other movies in its genetic makeup–it's got Blade Runner's production design, Star Wars' comic book plotting, and Stargate's cheesiness–it offers such a striking array of visual delights that it really does take us to fairly new territory. And while its story is pure hokum (the forces of evil vs. the forces of good, don't you know), the characters and the dialogue are entertaining enough to overcome any inherent silliness. The Fifth Element is the first science fiction (or fantasy, rather) film in years that isn't just another all-too-obvious retread.

In fact, it's rather amazing that Columbia ponied up $90 million to make something so dangerously unfamiliar, gambling that French director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita) knew what he was doing–juggling an epic tale, massive special effects, a major American action star, witty dialogue, and a barrage of details that make up New York City in the 23rd century. And you can say this about ol' Luc: He does keep those balls in the air. Whether or not he thought very hard about where they would eventually land is another matter.

The plot–as you've no doubt heard already–was concocted by Besson in grade school and refined over the last 20-odd years. Now that digital effects have finally caught up with his imagination, he was able to put that vision on the screen–although it still has a very child-like preponderance of big, bad, evil-nasty villain thingies.

Apparently, every 5,000 years, a door opens to another dimension, allowing a giant ball of pure evil into our galaxy. Sadly, it wants to snuff out all life. Not a good thing. (But why us? Does every galaxy get one of these mucky balls popping out and causing mayhem?) Fortunately, the Earth can fight back with the "fifth element," a perfect being who can be rigged up to destroy the evil spitball. And it's up to a New York taxi driver (Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis as no one else can) to find this perfect being (a surprisingly able Milla Jovovich), help her overcome the dastardly arms dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman with a delicious Texas drawl), and get ready to spit that hairball out.

Okay, ignore the plot. It shouldn't really get in the way of enjoying what The Fifth Element really offers: delicious production design that evokes more "wows" than the last four or five Star Trek sequels, cool aliens, witty repartee by an amusing cast, and nifty explosions. Don't expect the honor of "hard" science fiction to be upheld; do expect a lot of bang for your entertainment buck.

Truly, there's not much more to say. The Fifth Element is by no means revolutionary cinema in the way that Blade Runner was–it will not create its own sub-genre. It is, however, an excellent evocation of the kind of European, sci-fi storytelling made popular by Heavy Metal magazine in the late '70s/early '80s. Utilizing the design talents of Heavy Metal illustrator Moebius and fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, Besson has fused their stylistic sensibilities with the flash of American action pics–it's an engaging hybrid (despite the goofy ending).

 

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