The Fifth Element (1997)

D: Luc Besson
S: Bruce Willis, Mila Jovovich, Gary Oldman

The Fifth Element is an overhyped but basically enjoyable sci-fi fantasy which pits former galactic commando now taxi driver Bruce Willis against a huge cosmic conspiracy when beautiful Jovovich literally falls from the sky into his life with a variety of colourful men and monsters in pursuit. It all hinges around the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil, coming to a spectacular head in our far future when contact with alien races has been established and everyone wears clothing designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. The eponymous object is Jovovich herself: the elusive peripheral to the ancient four elements; earth, air, fire and water, and the only thing which can save the universe from destruction. Interplanetary arms dealer Oldman is eager to possess her the name of evil while bungling futuristic monk Ian Holm tries to protect her for the good of all mankind. Willis is caught in the middle initially as a well-meaning neutral party, then as an official representative of Earth's armed forces, but in addition finds himself attracted her, which could be dangerous for both of them.

The plot is convoluted and constantly shifts focus. It begins with a lengthy flashback set in the early twentieth century (where Luke Perry makes a cameo appearance which you keep expecting to pay off in some way but never does) where the element is taken away by what look like robot turkeys, then cuts to the future where it details the wreck of a ship bound for earth to return it (which turns out to be her) and the subsequent efforts to rebuild her body and mind by the Government. About a third of the way in to the film she encounters Willis and then things really get strange, as each new set of characters they encounter together changes the direction of the story and the location, moving from Earth to a galactic pleasure planet and back to Earth again with a variety of confrontations and crises along the way.

Some controversy centred on the fact that this largely French-financed movie reeks so strongly of American big-budget sci-fi spectacularism. This argument seems much a case of sour grapes, as does its poor reception at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was premiered.The fact is that Besson's use of American conventions has been consistent throughout his career, as has his particular take on them. His focus has always been off-centre and largely anti-narrative (culminating in the striking poetic documentary Atlantis), betraying elements of a fascination with the experimental stylings of the nouvelle vague modernists of the 1950s. But ultimately The Fifth Element is no closer a relative to Independence Day than it is to the masterworks of the French Cinema or anything else you care to name as precedent. It is a film by Luc Besson, a French director with a particular take on cultish self-referential movie making, and if you care to debate his nationality as a cultural reference point, you should also consider his cinematic identity, which extends far beyond the constraints of Hollywood or anti-Hollywood philosophies.

It is in some ways a child of Blade Runner, but owes just as much to Besson's own peculiar filmography, including Subway and Nikita. Only here his weird underground counterculture has suddenly become the world at large, and indeed, it seems, the cosmos itself. The logic of the universe is of Besson's cinematic one, and within those terms, it is entirely self-consistent. That it may not appeal to the vast majority of people is therefore no surprise. That fans of the French director will admire it aplenty is equally a foregone conclusion.

It has a refreshingly direct sense of its own incomprehensibility, and matches pace and style to the overall zaniness of the material. Besson obviously has tremendous fun with this expensive teenage fantasy, and manages to translate it into a fairly infectious concoction of weird characters and situations peppered with action and comedy.

Not all of it works: some if it is downright irritating. But by the time you reach the climax the film seems to have done everything it could have, and you feel satisfied by that alone, even if you are aware that there's rather too much ado about nothing in particular.

The production design and cinematography are eye-popping, and there is plenty of variety and inventiveness all round. Though Eric Serra's score borders on ear-piercing, it suits the mood of the film perfectly, with plenty of electronic percussion as Besson swings his camera to and fro around his larger-than-life characters (including a tentacled, blue-skinned opera singer from a distant planet and a race of mutant mercenaries who can mimic human form).

This is not a film for everyone. Its overall size and scale are initially off putting if you are expecting something more along the lines of recent sci-fi blockbusters like Stargate, Independence Day or Star Trek: First Contact. It may be difficult to get a handle on why anything on screen is happening at all. The plot avowedly takes the film beyond the realms of conventional narrative cinema, where cause and effect follow one another and everything exists for a reason, and most of the characters are too crazed to take very seriously (with Willis doing a particular line in under play which provides some sense of balance). But once you find a position from which to orient yourself towards this kaleidoscope born of comic books, mythology and Flash Gordon, it is at least possible to watch it.

Personally, I rather enjoyed it, though it does raise questions as to just what a film is supposed to be. Does a director make a movie for himself, or for an audience? Should he expect the audience to come to him, or does he make the effort to meet them halfway? These questions have many answers, but The Fifth Element assumes you're going to come to it, and makes no apologies if you find yourself lost and alone in a universe of pure insanity.

But at least it's committed, and does what it sets out to do. It has a voice and a style which is, if not wholly original, generally interesting, and that alone is worth something at a time when mundanity, bottom-line and playing it safe are the watch-words of Hollywood execs with bugets of this size to spend on major motion pictures.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.