The Fifth Element shouldn’t work. On paper it sounds like a ridiculous concept: in the far future, a benevolent group of large, turtle-like mecha aliens are destroyed on their way to save the Earth from ultimate evil. Utilizing the surviving remains of one of the aliens, Earth’s military manages to reconstruct the ethos of the creature in the sexy young body of a flaming-red haired human female (Milla Jovovich). Terrified of her new form and strange surroundings, she escapes due to the unwitting assistance of orange wife beater-clad Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a former special forces soldier-turned flying taxi cab driver, with the hopes of finding a secret order of Jedi-like priests. Meanwhile, an evil group of alien pirates…
…are hired by a literal half-headed conglomerate (Gary Oldman) to retrieve four ancient relics which may serve as the linchpin to the world’s survival. Throw in a phallic-haired, loud-mouth radio DJ (Chris Tucker) and a blue tentacle-headed opera singer and you’ve got the basic constructs of one of the strangest, most unique sci-fi ventures in the last two decades.
Like I said, on paper that sounds like it would either be a kick-ass cosmic adventure or, more probable, an absolute calamity – a big budget comic book version of post-Star Wars duds such as Starcrash (1978) or Heavy Metal (1981, a terrible adult-oriented animated film that also featured a futuristic film noir-type romance between an everyman taxi driver and an oversexed femme fatale); yet, under the assured guidance of writer/director Luc Besson (who conceived the concept in his teens), The Fifth Element surpasses even the most skeptical expectations…
The unspoken truth behind the film’s most ardent fans is that the plot is actually as ludicrous as it sounds. We’ve seen many variations of it before (like in the aforementioned Heavy Metal). What elevates the picture beyond its inauspicious story are three key elements: excellent world-building and visuals; a diverse, intriguing mix of characters supported by an exemplary cast (even Luke Perry slips by); and an engrossing, rhythmic style that permeates every frame and editing construct.
To call The Fifth Element an “experience picture” rather than a tight, narrative driven feature would be appropriate. With a notable cadenced flow, it becomes difficult to resist getting caught up in its oddball current. There are few films that can induce hypnotic joy with a narrative-halting montage focusing on a starship take off intercut by cunnilingus and flame-throwing Jamaican pest control (at least without the use of narcotics). Such a sequence would provoke a garish black-eye to most films yet The Fifth Element‘s genuine earnestness shrugs it off as nothing more than a regular bizarre encounter along its singular current.
Do such strange diversions and peculiar turns justify or excuse the film’s shortcomings? Not entirely. There are a few goofy misfires that betray the overarching stakes plus a climactic, half-assed moral impasse that required more time to simmer to be effective; however, such flaws do little to deter the film’s amusing spirit.
The cast is clearly having a ball and its audience is invited to the party. Of particular note is an engrossing performance by Milla Jovovich who plays a character that successfully exudes the challenging balance of a childlike, animalistic entity and a tough, acrobatic combatant. Add in her vulnerable, unremitting determination and a natural, magnetic sex appeal (she single-handedly makes the phrase “thermal bandages” titillating) and Jovovich prospers as the heart of the picture. Remarkably, she achieves this with little determinable English for most of the film’s runtime.
In the end, The Fifth Element is good, quirky fun with far-reaching influence. Two examples can be found in the imaginative, bizarre worlds and tone of the Farscape television series and Guardians of the Galaxy. Beyond that, few would argue that Anakin’s death-defying leap through Coruscant’s elevated traffic in Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones isn’t a direct lift from The Fifth Element‘s most infamous scene. Yet, despite its achievements and stylistic impact, the film isn’t for everyone’s taste – its atypical nature and offbeat presentation assures such discord – but sometimes it’s good to just let oneself become enraptured by the ride. You never quite know what surprises may lie ahead (such as a movie where Chris Tucker’s jarring exuberance feels 100% natural!).