I had seen bits and pieces of The Fifth Element before. It was one of those movies that always seemed to be on TNT when I was in high school, and it’s hard to not pause on the channel when Chris Tucker pops up wearing a leopard-print leotard and a blond penis-shaped wig.
Yet it’s for just those reasons that I usually didn’t stay long. I used to think movies were supposed to look a certain way—polished, pretty, believable.
No one in their right mind would use those adjectives to describe Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi epic. Other adjectives I wouldn’t use: “coherent,” “consistent,” “good.”
Let’s make one thing clear, though. The reasons I previously resisted The Fifth Element—its preposterous look—is one of its best, most redeeming qualities. The film’s character design—which my colleague Alex explored in great detail—is spectacular. His points about the genre’s reliance on physicality to depict good and evil is noted, but I found the Mangalores, Mondoshawans, and especially Diva to be extremely impressive from a craft and creativity perspective.
The film’s settings, also, are unique, and I can’t help but wish we saw more planets, more space crafts, more everything in this world.
To that end, I like the ideas behind the plot. They aren’t especially complicated—MacGuffin must be recovered in order to save the world, and, wait for it, the GIRL is the MacGuffin!—but there’s a lot on the periphery, like Leeloo’s reluctance to help because of mankind’s self-destructive tendencies, that felt thoughtful, and I wish the film went further in exploring them.
Ultimately, that was the primary source of my frustration watching this film. Whenever it built up some momentum, it paused for a rote action scene—didn’t I see that shot of Bruce Willis diving away from an explosion somewhere before?—or unfunny attempt at comedy. I actually appreciated Chris Tucker’s contributions, but his is comic relief that sort of tags along with the primary plot. He never grinds the film to a halt the way the series of calls to Korben’s mom do. Nor does he have a scene as unnecessary or awkward as Korben’s visit from the General.
The film wastes a great Gary Oldman performance by never totally fleshing out his motivations, and similarly, the Mangalores goals—outside of the generic “let’s fuck shit up”—are ill-defined.
I guess I just wanted to like this movie more. As my tastes evolved and I started accepting camp as not only a valid but a necessary aesthetic and storytelling choice, I knew I’d want to come around and check this film out. I suspected I’d enjoy it very much, but maybe my expectations were too high
Nevertheless, I’m hopeful I can shake this one off, adjust those expectations accordingly, and enjoy the shit out of Valerian.