Okay, so there's this thing see, called the Great Evil, and it appears every 5,000 years. It manifests itself as this huge amorphous orb of black fire the size of a planet and its solitary goal is to annihilate all life. It's virtually unstoppable, but there's hope. A weapon consisting of four stones, representing the basic elements – water, fire, earth and air – can be assembled to stop the threat. But to unlock this extraordinary power, a uniquely “perfect” human must be combined with these other four elements first. Flash forward to the year 2263 where the Great Evil has suddenly appeared and is approaching Earth with intent to destroy. Meanwhile, a divine visitor from another planet has been restored from DNA in a scientific lab, but she's frightened by her unfamiliar surroundings. Upon escaping, she literally crashes through the roof of a cab driven by taxi driver Korben Dallas. Together they endeavour to find the missing stones before the wicked Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg can. Why? So they can save the world, of course.
If that plot description sounds loopy, you'd be right. And that's what makes this French/American space adventure story so intoxicating. Apparently, writer/director Luc Besson began the script for The Fifth Element when he was only 16 years old. The naïve perspective benefits the material; the refreshingly straightforward conflict between good and evil is explored in a most satisfying way. Besson was influenced by the French comic books he read as a teenager and the production features all of the attributes of their stylish colour and composition. The film would make a fine publication, as any frame could easily be frozen as a panel, completed with dialogue bubbles.
From the archives: Luc Besson & Bruce Willis talk 'The Fifth Element'
The production is ridiculously over the top, the incredibly detailed sets visually stunning. From the futuristic 3D highways of Brooklyn, New York to the backdrop of planet Earth during the opera concert on Planet Fhloston, every scene is a feast for the eyes. But even that clichéd phrase simply does not do this production justice.
Of course, none of this ridiculousness would work if we didn't have a flawlessly cast picture full of larger than life characters that truly engage. Bruce Willis is a retired elite Special Forces military hero who currently drives a taxi. He's got confidence to spare but a sarcastic world-weary demeanour. He grounds the movie as we identify with his detachment from the peculiar state of the world around him. Milla Jovovich is Leeloo, an otherworldly being that captivates his interest. She's sufficiently 'exotic', speaking a fictional language with limited vocabulary. It's worth mentioning the significant contributions of actors Gary Oldman and Ian Holm as well. Even former wrestler Tom 'Tiny' Lister, Jr. appears as The President. Now, that's inspired casting. But the most memorable portrayal of all occurs roughly halfway in when popular radio talk show host DJ Ruby Rhod, played by comedian Chris Tucker, makes his entrance, sashaying flamboyantly in a leopard print robe one moment, then making aggressive sexual advances towards pretty young stewardesses the next. Possessing a high pitched voice on helium, Ruby buzzes people away with a flick of his hand. He's like Prince, Steve Urkel, Little Richard and Dennis Rodman all rolled up in the same person. It's an admittedly polarising performance, but an achievement that perfectly defines the utter outrageousness of the drama. Without question, it's among the most unforgettable entrances I've ever seen in a film. He should have been nominated for an Academy Award. Yeah, I said it.
The actors are complemented by a sensational array of costumes created by French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, each more bizarre than the next. His trademark nautical chic is evident in the sailor and captain suits of the resort workers, but we've also got ultra sexy stewardesses that would give a Las Vegas showgirl pause. Those uniforms at the McDonald's are pretty revealing, too. And don't forget the carefully placed white tape on the barely-there 'dress' that Leeloo sports after she's first re-created from DNA. The tone is always tongue in cheek. The alien opera diva is a suitably mesmerising marvel of silky powder blue skin and tentacles. Check out the amusing nod to Princess Leia on the stocky policewoman that shows up at Korben's apartment. The personalities occasionally reference the past, but Besson ultimately makes the distinct vision all his own.
For me, The Fifth Element embodies the phrase “cinematically dazzling” more than any other picture. Production design, fashion, music, and an international cast: all of it integrated to form a shining model of a sensory celebration. There have certainly been flicks that have been equally stylish, but none to surpass it. French director Luc Besson has been a highly successful force in movie making. One of the most 'Hollywood' of all French filmmakers, he has perhaps grown somewhat more mainstream and predictable as time has passed. The Fifth Element remains his transcendent combination of artistry and commerce. Besson's delightful rumination on good vs. evil creates excitement. It's uplifting in its naïveté: 'the triumph of love'. Naturally, these positives wouldn't matter if we didn't have individuals we actually cared about. There's a palpable joie de vivre here, rarely this tangible in big budget science fiction. That feeling is underscored throughout the film, concluding with the final shot.
Watch 'The Fifth Element'
Friday 27 August 9:30pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
France, USA, 1997
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Gary Oldman