Science fiction is a genre that is known, especially nowadays, for presenting a “big idea” in the subtext that it’s trying to get across. Most of the critically acclaimed science fiction films, and most of the ones that are remembered for years past their release, have an element of this. But every so often it’s nice to be reminded that science fiction can just be fun as well, and The Fifth Element takes this approach while not completely ignoring the other.
Directed and written by Luc Besson, this film was reportedly his homage to the science fiction comic books he had grown up on. It doesn’t fall far from the source. The Fifth Element is fast-paced, colorful, and a lot of fun.
Though maybe not so fun for the protagonists.
The Fifth Element stars Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas, retired major and current taxi driver. Set a few hundred years in the future, the film begins with the imminent arrival of an ancient threat to civilization. Every 5000 years a great evil comes to try and consume the Earth and spread death throughout the galaxy. The only thing which can stop it is a weapon long-hidden in the pyramids of Egypt, granted to mankind by benevolent aliens. The weapon harnesses the power of the four elements, centered around a fifth. Korben is brought into the mess when the fifth element in question, a genetically-engineered superhuman called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) crashes through the roof his cab. Korben and Leeloo need to retrieve the four elemental keystones to save the world. Also present are a priest and his acolyte (Ian Holm and Charlie Creed-Miles), who were the benevolent aliens’ contacts on Earth; Gary Oldman as Zorg, a power-hungry businessman who wants to sell the stones for profit; and an alien race that wants the stones to sell to Zorg for advanced weaponry. All factions are in competition for the stones.
It’s a simple and straightforward plot that makes for a fun romp through a setting that, like Blade Runner, is a mixture of “colorful” and “gritty” — leaning more to the former in this case. The sci-fi comic book legacy is in full display with the designs of the cities, aliens, artifacts, and costumes. The Fifth Element is always a pleasure to look at.
OK. Almost always.
The characters in the film are also a lot of fun. Korben Dallas is your typical Bruce Willis role; he’s a highly capable guy who nevertheless seems rather put-upon by his situation. There’s a strong resemblance to John McClane in his personality. Leeloo is both driven and very naive, having little direct life experience; she’s impressive in combat and amusingly charming outside of it. Gary Oldman’s character Zorg is creepy and weird in the right doses, while never seeming as though this is in any way a handicap to his character. Even Chris Tucker’s character, Ruby Rhod, is moderately amusing — though I did find him to be overused.
The story makes a few basic nods to the idea of science fiction being about high concepts, particularly near the end of the film, but mostly it’s just here to show the audience a good time. There are gunfights and fistfights and a lot of subversive humor throughout the film. The end result is a film that occupies that special intersection between an intelligent film and simple fun; how much thinking you want to do while watching the film is largely up to you, and there’s something to reward any level of brain activity. It leans a bit more on the side of simple fun — but since it is fun, it succeeds at that without falling into the trap of being stupid.
It’s a film that I can see myself going back to multiple times. While my initial impression is strong, I can picture it getting stronger with repeat viewings.