Tuesday, January 24, 2017

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997) - ***½

Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
Running time: 126 min.
Release date: May 9, 1997
Box office: $63,820,180 (domestic); $263,920,180 total worldwide.

Director Luc Besson wrote an early draft of The Fifth Element when he was in his teens. It was a thing teens do when they're bored; the teenage fantasies of a boy whose head was wrapped in comic books. The finished product reflects these young hormonal male fantasies, of visions of the future, a damsel in distress, alien enemies and a world that needs saving. So it is that in 1997, Luc Besson has the vision (and the funds) to make his fantasy come true, so to speak. The Fifth Element is a science-fiction tale that will appeal to those with imagination. Actually, there is quite a bit of imagination on display here.

The story opens in that mecca of imaginary happenings: Egypt. A race of aliens have landed on Earth to collect a cache of precious stones hidden in a temple, just as a professor is discovering exactly what all the hieroglyphics on the temple wall mean. The stones provide the only defense against an evil entity that appears every 5,000 years. World War I has just started and the aliens determine that Earth is no longer a safe place for them. Luke Perry's name appears in the opening credits, but his scene here is really more of a cameo. You have to understand that in 1997, Luke Perry was still earning a living as Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210. So if you were a teenage girl in 1997, wanting to see the hot new film starring Luke Perry, the remaining two hours were probably going to drag for you.

Fast forward to the 23rd century, and New York of the future is exactly as it was played out in books and magazines from the 50's and 60's: skyscrapers into the clouds, flying cars, and apartments that more resemble small cubicles than anything else. Besson spared no expense in creating this landscape and it is breathtaking. It resembles the Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in scope, but with more light and less grime. This is all threatened by a mysterious, dark, planet-like being hurtling toward the planet with intentions that can only be described as ill-meaning. The President (Tony "Tiny" Lister) is assured that a safety measure is on its way in the form of the aliens from the opening, returning with the stones that will somehow protect the Earth. However, they come under attack by a different race of aliens, who want the stones for their own nefarious purposes. They are employed by a shifty businessman named Zorg, played by Gary Oldman. Zorg is actually helping the evil planet-thing by attempting to acquire the stones in order to prevent any interference from the impending destruction. I question Zorg's motivations here, as the planet will surely be devoured by this evil, leaving nothing for Zorg.

The sole survivor of the attack is reconstructed using 23rd century technology, and she appears in the form of Milla Jovovich as Leeloo. The scientists graciously provide her with just enough bandages to cover her goods. She then escapes from interrogation and lands in the back of a flying cab driven by Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Its love at first sight for Korben, who now finds himself smack in the middle of this race against time to save humanity, even when Leeloo herself questions whether humanity deserves to be saved. It's a good thing that Korben is a former Special Forces major or this whole story could have ended poorly for everyone. The story takes several twists and turns to finally end up on a floating cruise ship in space that serves as a vacation resort. We meet a disc jockey that never seems to run out of oxygen, and a tall, blue opera singer named Plavalaguna. Played by Maiwenn Le Besco, the diva character will stick with you thanks to the scene of her performing an aria that is rather quite lovely, interspersed with scenes of Leeloo fighting off a horde of aliens. The striking appearance of the diva, coupled with the music, makes this scene the standout in a film that is chock-full of vision.

Besson has taken his vision and given it life on-screen, and it is something to behold. The production design and visual effects are rich and every corner is occupied with something fascinating. Even the music in the film is textured and complex. Composer Eric Serra has certainly matched his musical vision with Besson's direction. In regards to the costumes, there is certainly vision there also, if not taste. Part of what holds this back from being a great film is there is an underlying silliness, thanks in no small part to the strange and offbeat designs worn by the cast. Everything from the benevolent alien race to the NYPD look like they are highly uncomfortable, especially when the police chase Leeloo through tunnels. Zorg has a clear plastic covering over part of his head for unknown reasons and then the priest, played by Ian Holm, is dressed like a 15th century monk, as we see that almost 500 years of fashion "evolution" did not extend to the clergy.

The cast is quite good here and up to the task. Bruce Willis gives his usual Bruce Willis-like performance, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I like Willis, and I know what to expect when I see a movie with Bruce Willis in the cast. Milla Jovovich as Leeloo is both cute and strong, but then the screenplay sends her character downhill into despair, which was quite a shift in tone for her. A strong female lead reduced to a quivering, near-catatonic mass was a misstep. Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod has been a polarizing character in other discussions of this film, however I didn't have any issue here. He was provided for comic relief and I found myself laughing at nearly every scene he was in. His high-pitched squeal of fear during one action scene was hilarious. Now, the character didn't necessarily need to be carried through to the climax, but he didn't detract from the task at hand.

The Fifth Element is a movie full of vision and imagery and should be seen for that reason, more than any other. The story is secondary and is filled with holes that, if dwelled upon, may hamper one's ability to enjoy the experience. I mean, when young boys and girls dream of future worlds full of sights and sounds, they're not really thinking of how they got there; but they are thinking of what they might see. This is The Fifth Element in a nutshell.

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