Life is short and times are hard and there are only so many movies you can jam into your brain during your time on this earth.
Yet we keep returning to old faves again and again. It’s never the greats, though; to me, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is so obviously the greatest move ever made that it’s weird there’s even discussion about it, but that three-hour long, black and white, subtitled, monolith of cinema is a once-a-year treat, if that. No, when we need some cinematic comfort food, we dive into the pop genres: action, comedy, sci-fi.
Director Luc Besson’s 1997 blockbuster, The Fifth Element, is all three, and that is one reason, perhaps, that SBS Viceland has decided to host a multi-screening marathon on May 5 (Editor's note: Correct #MayTheFifthElement). But there’s a difference between a cool movie you can return to over and over again, and literally watching something on repeat. Yet this lurid slice of space fantasy not only deserves such attention, it demands it. Why? Well, for one thing…
The plot is bonkers
Like life itself, The Fifth Element only makes sense if you don’t look at it too carefully. On close inspection, the whole thing reveals itself to be an absurd romp barely held together by the thinnest string of logic and causality.
Set in the year 2263, The Fifth Element sees fighter pilot/taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) team up with universal superbeing Leeloo Minaï Lekatariba-Laminaï-Tchaï Ekbat de Sebat (Mill Jovovich) and obnoxious radio DJ Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) to find four ancient sacred stones that can hopefully be used to defeat a giant space-borne ball of black flame that is basically pure, concentrated evil. Opposing them is Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman having the time of his life), a military industrialist, and his army of alien mercenaries. And we proceed from there.
The film skips blithely from early 20th century Egypt to far-future New York City to an alien beach resort and several points in between, never letting logic or plausibility get in the way of a cool shot or stunning special effects vista. There’s a full cast of anxious priests, menacing goons, alien opera divas, and these things that look like robot ducks:
…all thrown into the narrative blender to bounce off each other to make pretty pictures. Why let story get in the way of a good story?
It’s stunningly beautiful
Sci-fi films generally fall into three broad categories: Movies That Look Like Blade Runner, Movies That Look Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bloody Star Wars. The Fifth Element, bless it, refuses to be so neatly categorised, instead indulging in a gorgeous visual aesthetic that draws from European comics such as Metal Hurlant (reprinted as Heavy Metal in the anglophone world), especially works by Jean “Moebius” Giraud (Arzach, The Incal) and Jean-Claude Mézières (Valérian and Laureline, which Besson later adapted for the screen as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). In point of fact, Besson hired the pair to work on the film’s production design, giving The Fifth Element a colourful, bizarre visual design that is an eye-popping relief from the drizzly grey and gleaming white dystopias normally on offer.
Complementing their work is the costume design by fashion monster Jean-Paul Gaultier, he never lets practicality come ahead of style – hence Bruce Willis’s weird, peek-a-boo panel orange singlet, Milla Jovovich’s bandage ensemble, and everything happening on and around Gary Oldman.
The cast is incredible
Not just Bruce Willis, but Bruce Willis back when he was good. Jovovich is only now rightly being reconsidered as a genuine feminist action icon, and it’s this film that really put her on the map. Gary Oldman is Gary Oldman at his most theatrical and eccentric, and it’s amazing to watch his campy turn here and contemplate the Best Actor Oscar sitting on his mantlepiece right now. And Chris Tucker flamboyantly throwing caution and archetypes of masculinity to the wind as the androgynous, sybaritic, cowardly, arrogant Ruby Rhod, doing things we’ve never seen before or since with what could have been an almost throwaway role.
Add to that a supporting cast jammed with great character actors and weird cameos: Blade Runner’s Brion James crops up as a military officer, Tricky of all people is a thug, the late Luke Perry shows up for one scene and about four lines of dialogue, and Ian Holm is a priest. The hulking Tiny Lister is the President of the Universe or something, and Mathieu Kassovitz is a mugger. The rest of the ensemble is mostly packed out with supermodels picking up a paycheque, because Besson wants you to have something beautiful to look at in every single frame, or just odd-looking people who keep drawing your eye. In a movie filled with bizarre aliens, the humans are often the most visually fascinating thing on the screen.
SBS Viceland's #MayTheFifthElement marathon of -what else?- The Fifth Element is happening from midday on Sunday 5 May.