Sci-fi epics are hard. Sure, when they hit the perfect spot they can become incredibly beloved, but the right blend of hero’s journey, imaginative world building, and out-of-this-world stakes have to be juggled. For every Star Wars or Blade Runner there is a Jupiter Ascending or Dune to match. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is somewhere in the middle—living a strange space of modest cult fandom and success. I’m honestly not sure where it stands in the canon for sci-fi fans; it doesn’t seem to be particularly loved or hated, which is kind of weird. Just past its 20-year anniversary and with Besson’s seeming return to the aesthetic with the release of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, this week seems like the right time for a revisit.
I didn’t come to see The Fifth Element for the first time until earlier this year on a random weekend night searching for movies available on-demand for free. While I wasn’t exactly sure what the film’s quality would be, I was well aware of its style and character design. These aspects of the film absolutely hold up [the special effects well enough, too] and are unquestionably the film’s ace. Not saying the story is bad by any means, I could watch The Fifth Element without sound and get just as much enjoyment out of it. In a genre that has becoming increasingly dark visually, the color alone leaves a mark.
The Fifth Element tells its massive space epic through Korben Dallas, a galactic everyman with money problems, a tiny apartment, and a terrible job. He’s sort of like Han Solo if he had made a number of terrible decisions that his charm couldn’t quite get him through. He just wants to live his crappy life when a strange woman named Leeloo crashes through the roof of his cab while fleeing the space police. He makes a rash decision to disobey authority [as most sci-fi heroes do] and protect Leeloo. What he doesn’t immediately realize is that she is literally the key to saving the world.
Bruce Willis plays the exceptional everyman, which is right in the actor’s wheelhouse. His typical macho nonchalance works well for Dallas, who is simultaneously too cool for school and way over his head. Willis may be the star, but Milla Jovovich is the film’s true breakout. Jovovich hasn’t become a household name and yet she is one of the few preeminent female action actors—apart from The Fifth Element, she has been dependable in the Resident Evil franchise. Where Hollywood usually tries to take A-list stars or “serious actors” and retrofit them into action leads [Scarlett Johansson has mostly adapted, Angelina Jolie and many others didn’t really work out], Jovovich should be treasured.
Jovovich’s performance is exceptional. She’s both incredibly badass and flawlessly funny. The way she moves, the way she speaks, the way she conveys the character adapting to a new world is iconic. And yet a feminist icon Leeloo is not. Everything that makes her alluring is so specifically designed by a male fantasy. Being physically and kinetically perfect while also a naive blank slate emotionally is a troubling character contradiction that also makes her the ideal. Her introduction captures this dynamic: she’s like an untamed animal under glass, literally created by men and then ogled by them. The way she busts out from that setting might be something of a feminist metaphor. Then again, no one offers her any clothes for another 20 or so minutes. I can’t fault Bresson and I wouldn’t throw some misogynist label on him for The Fifth Element because Leeloo definitely has many positive and admirable qualities. She is an interesting mixed bag, equal parts empowering and problematic.
And simply put, The Fifth Element wouldn’t be so damn fun without Leeloo and Jovovich’s portrayal. That’s really the first element of the film that sticks out, pardon the pun [or not]—it is such a entertaining ride. The colorful environments, the crazy characters [I haven’t even mentioned Gary Oldman as Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg and how couldn’t I?], the quick pace, the wonderful world, it all blends together in a strange and appealing way. It certainly isn’t perfect, but even its flaws have merit and are part of the total vision. On the dawn of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Worlds [which could be amazing or could be terrible or could be both], I can only hope it matches the energy and takes the risks of The Fifth Element. Oh, I’ll have a Related Review of it later this week, so we’re going to find out.