Welcome back to Enuffa.com, and welcome to yet another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, where I suck all the enjoyment out of one of America's most beloved popcorn films and demonstrate why I don't get invited to parties anymore.
Today I'll be dissecting Luc Besson's 1997 sci-fi epic The Fifth Element - a richly visual, futuristic action vehicle, starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm and Milla Jovovich. This film was released at the start of the 1997 summer movie season, and while not a success in the United States, made a killing overseas. The story centers around a battle of good vs. evil, life vs. death, as a cosmic force threatens the existence of all life in the universe unless the five elements are assembled to stop it. Caught up in the middle of this war is Korben Dallas, a former special forces officer now driving a cab for a living. Dallas is recruited to deliver "the fifth element" - a supreme being in the guise of a young woman named Leeloo - to an alien in possession of four stones representing the other four elements, so they may be used to save the universe.
This is a pretty goofy premise if I'm being honest, and were it not for Luc Besson's gleeful abandon and quite obvious love for the project (plus several other factors), this film would likely belong in a compost heap.
But let's examine the reasons this movie is actually quite delightful, and then we'll talk about what could've been improved.
What first attracted me to this film, and what immediately sets it apart from its B-movie schlock brethren, is its first-rate cast. Bruce Willis is typecast but perfect as the reluctant everyman hero Korben Dallas, whose life as a cabby seems unbecoming of a former decorated soldier. Dallas lives a lonely existence in a shoebox apartment with only his cat for companionship. In Leeloo he sees a chance for redemption and a sense of purpose. Milla Jovovich is quirky, often goofy, but also quite touching in the role of Leeloo. Despite being a superpowered alien she projects vulnerability and makes us identify with and care about this strange person. Ian Holm improves every film he's in, and his turn as Vito Cornelius is no exception. Cornelius is the priest entrusted with being the caretaker of the five elements, and Holm's performance brings instant credibility to the project, much as Alec Guinness did for Star Wars. And last but certainly not least, Gary Oldman once again steals the show as the villainous, slimy weapons dealer Zorg, who is also after the elemental stones. Boasting a southern accent and oversized front teeth, Oldman is almost unrecognizable as this craven but charismatic scoundrel.
So no complaints about the acting in this film - it is head-and-shoulders above most movies of this type.
Art Direction and Special Effects
The effects and artistic design of this movie are fantastic. The Fifth Element had a $90 million budget (quite expensive for the time), and it's easy to see why. The costumes are bizarre and seem inspired by avant-garde European fashion (No wonder, the Costume Designer was Jean-Paul Gaultier), the sets are lush and totally convincing as futuristic locations, and the visual effects look gorgeous. Unlike most futuristic thrillers these days, the film wasn't overly populated with CG imagery, nor is each effects shot so densely populated you can't follow it. These effects were state-of-the-art for 1997 and largely still hold up today. If nothing else, The Fifth Element is a beautiful-looking film.
1997 was one of the last years where movie aliens and creatures were brought to life using practical effects. Nowadays the Mangalores, the Mondoshawans, and Diva Plavalaguna would all be created in a computer and we'd be treated to yet another bevy of cartoonish characters that quite obviously don't occupy real space. CG creatures almost never look as convincing as their practical makeup/puppeted counterparts.
The sequence where Leeloo is brought back to life from just a few living cells by cloning her DNA is a really neat scene.
I love the "diva" sequence midway through the movie. Dallas attends an operatic performance by an alien diva, whom it turns out is in possession of the elemental stones. Her concert is intercut with a fight sequence involving Leeloo and several bad guys, and the vocal track is digitally-enhanced to sound impossible for a human to duplicate. I found this sequence quite imaginative.
The assault weapon Zorg sells to the Mangalores is pretty effin' cool. Combination machine gun (with "replay" feature where the gun automatically fires at the target of the first round), rocket launcher, poison dart gun, flamethrower, ice cannon. As movie guns go, this is pretty boss.
Sadly it isn't all good news...
The overall concept of this movie feels like Luc Besson had a brief period of profound inspiration but then couldn't follow up on it. On the surface the idea of a cosmic evil presence materializing with the intent of destroying the universe, while the principle characters race to find the one thing that can stop it, presents a promising and conceptually lofty story arc. But Besson never really fleshed out the plot beyond that barebones outline. There's no explanation as to why this evil being wants to destroy the universe, where it came from (They mention that it is summoned when three planetary eclipses coincide every 5000 years, opening a gateway to another dimension, but that's all we get), why it's invulnerable to everything except the five assembled elements, etc. Ultimately the plot just feels like a thin length of clothesline upon which the characters and action sequences are precariously pinned.
A story is often only as good as its villain. And a good villain needs a clear motivation for wanting to do evil things. Gary Oldman's performance makes Zorg a good villain, but unfortunately it's never made clear to us why Zorg is helping this evil being (whom he calls Mr. Shadow for some reason) to track down the stones. Does Zorg not realize that he's aiding in his own destruction? Did Mr. Shadow promise Zorg some sort of immunity? Cash? None of this is dealt with in the script, so we have no idea what the primary villain's motivation is.
Jeezus H. Christ, has there ever been a more annoying movie character? Tucker plays Ruby Rhod, a flamboyantly-dressed talk-show host who gets caught up in the action during the film's second half. I'm really not sure what purpose this character serves the story. He's in the way basically all the time, he annoys the protagonists constantly without offering any kind of meaningful help, and yet for some reason they take him along for the ride during the film's climax. So essentially he's a precursor to Jar-Jar Binks. And I'm not sure which character sucks more. I gotta think George Lucas was tremendously entertained by this character and invented Jar-Jar as a way to one-up Besson.
-In the first scene, set in Egypt in 1914, the Mondoshawan visit Earth to take the five elements away for safekeeping (The four stones and the fifth element were being stored in the secret vault of a tomb), citing the impending World War as a threat to the stones' safety. As they're leaving, one of the Mondoshawan fails to make it out of the tomb before the door closes, so his friends just leave him there forever, and he's fine with this. Two things - 1) why couldn't one of his friends unlock the door again and let him out, and 2) when our heroes return to that tomb 300 years later, where's that guy's corpse? It's missing the next time we see the place. Did he find a way to open the vault from the inside, minus one hand?
-For some reason Leeloo's blonde roots show very prominently under her red hair. What does a supreme being need with artificial hair coloring? Shouldn't her hair already be the perfect color? Also when she's genetically reconstructed in that bio-tank thing at the beginning of the movie, how does the machine know she colors her hair? Wouldn't she just be blonde at that point since the machine's rebuilding her based on DNA?
-Along those same lines, why does a supreme being need eye makeup?
-Leeloo speaks very broken English through most of the film and has a thick "divine accent." But when she finishes assimilating all the information from that digital encyclopedia thing, suddenly she speaks perfect English with no accent. I guess "English Diction" was one of the topics she reviewed?
-Leeloo is seen consuming large quantities of chicken while doing her "homework," and Vito mentions she has 5000 years of catching up to do, as she's been "asleep for a long time." If she's able to sleep for 5000 years without eating, why does she need food now?
-This one bugged me right off the bat - Korben has a phone conversation with his mother, who is the stereotypical annoying, overbearing New York mom character. Only problem is the voice actress playing her is clearly a young woman trying to sound old, and she doesn't. Like not at all. Which makes the scene and her character even more grating.
-At two points in the film a character encounters "Mr. Shadow" and a strange brown goop starts dribbling down their foreheads. This happens to Zorg while he's on the phone with him. What's the brown goop all about? Does Mr. Shadow secrete Hershey's chocolate syrup via radio waves?
-At one point Korben's former commanding officer General Munro visits his apartment to recruit him for the Fhloston mission. As they're arguing about said mission, Leeloo shows up unexpectedly and Korben hides Munro and the other two officers in his refrigerator. At the end of the scene Korben opens the fridge to grab his plane ticket and the three officers are clearly frozen. I assumed they died in there, but later on we see General Munro again and he's just fine.
-Vito Cornelius stows away on the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise and hides in the landing gear compartment. Upon landing he's immediately spotted by the tarmac crew and the guy just lets him go. Real tight security on these intergalactic aircraft.
-As I understand it, the Fhloston Paradise contest was rigged by Gen. Munro because security was so tight getting into the place Korben would never get in without a cover story. Yet Zorg is able to land his ship on the cruiser virtually without passing any security check. TWICE.
-Evidently Plavalaguna's performance consisted of just that one song, because she gets a standing ovation, the curtain closes, and she takes her bows for several minutes before the opera house is attacked by the Mangalores. All that buildup with the audience dressing in formal evening wear, FOR ONE SONG??
-Just before she dies, Plavalaguna tells Korben that Leeloo is fragile and needs his love. How does she know? Hasn't Leeloo been asleep for 5000 years? When have they ever met face-to-face?
-After Leeloo takes out the invading Mangalores in her suite, Zorg shows up and takes away the case of stones, then hastily boards his ship and takes off, only to later find out the case is empty. An empty case. Ya know, the EXACT SAME THING the Mangalores presented him earlier in the movie that he was so pissed off about? Would Zorg really not double-check the contents of the case before leaving Fhloston?
So don't get me wrong, this is a highly entertaining, visually stunning film that creates a richly detailed universe and boasts likable and/or interesting characters played by top-flight actors. But it could've been an all-time classic had Besson put in a little more work on the story. It's one of those movies that seems mindblowing the first time you watch it, but doesn't hold up over repeated viewings. Like Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films (the third was garbage from the beginning). Or Avatar.
That'll do it for this edition - check back here at Enuffa.com for more Awesomely Shitty Movies!
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