by Ashley Naftule
I watched The Fifth Element 13 times when it was in theaters. 11 times in the States, and twice in France while visiting relatives in the summer. Thirteen times. I watched The Royal Tenenbaums about a half a dozen times when it came out – no other film comes close in terms of repeat theatrical views.
Why this movie? Why this bright, fast-moving, campy piece of sci-fi by Luc Besson? There’s a few reasons why it racked up so many viewings:
1. I had no life as a young Ash, so I had plenty of time to go to the movies.
2. My allowance was generous enough to pay for multiple viewings.
3. Deep in the throes of puberty, I could reaaaaaaallly appreciate Milla Jovovich’s bandage getup (not to mention the stewardess outfits – if that’s what the future looks like, BEAM ME UP)
4. It’s really, really, really fun.
Looking back on The Fifth Element, it’s striking how odd a film it is. It’s one of the rare sci-fi films without any attempts at franchising or remaking to its name – it’s a one-and-done motion picture. In an era where it feels like damn near everything is laying down the foundations for its own cinematic universe, it’s refreshing to watch a movie that throws all its ideas out there and leaves nothing left lying around for a sequel to pick up on.
What’s also striking about the film is its downright queer vision of the future. It isn’t the neon, dimly lit cyberpunk future of Bladerunner or the utilitarian, streamlined universe of Star Trek – The Fifth Element presents a reality populated by people taking their style cues from Devo and Lady Gaga. It’s a world where even civil servants and villainous CEOs with twangy accents look like avant-garde gay pop stars. The future of The Fifth Element is super colorful, gaudy, sensual, and basically ludicrous. The only other sci-fi flick whose future style was almost as wacky as Besson’s film was the criminally underrated Demolition Man (also starring an ’80s action movie icon).
Art by Jean-Claude Mezieres
That’s the real reason why I kept coming back to the theater: out of all the visions of the future I had seen and read as a lifelong sci-fi fan, The Fifth Element was THE fictional universe that I wanted to live in.
The film owes so much of its looney aesthetic to the surrealistic comic work of bande dessinée artists/writers like Jean-Claude Mezieres and Moebius (both of whom served as production designers for Besson’s film). Both comic creators were adept at creating tableaus teeming with weird figures and outrageous outfits – flip through the pages of bande dessinée works like The Incal and you’ll see radical depictions of the future that makes most modern futurist work look as old-fashioned as Melies’ Trip To The Moon.
Art by Moebius
In addition to the design work of Mezieres and Moebius, The Fifth Element derives a lot of its flash and freaky appeal from the costume work of Jean Paul Gaultier. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another film whose identity and staying power is so deeply rooted in the costume design. From the strange plastic half-shell covering Gary Oldman’s forehead to Leeloo’s bandage suit to Ruby Rhod’s animal print catsuit and space-age poodle-pompadour, the denizens of The Fifth Element wear clothing that would look batshit insane on a runaway, let alone as day-to-day garb. Even the clergy dress in outfits that look like they’re on their way to some kind of Gregorian Devo concert.
The plot offers little in the way of curveballs or substance. An ultimate Evil tries to destroy the universe, and is defeated by a Han Solo-ish wisecracking rogue, a “Born Sexy Yesterday” messiah badass, a bumbling Obi Wan monk, and Little Richard Jar Jar Binks (to be fair to Ruby: Chris Tucker’s performance as Ruby Rhod is one of the rare Intentionally Annoying & Useless Sidekick characters that ACTUALLY WORKS). What makes the film so memorable is its style: a city without sidewalks, where multiple levels of flying traffic whizz past each other; an alien opera singer with sacred stones in her guts; giant clanking steampunk aliens that give Luke Perry the willies; and Oldman’s bizarre Zorg, a boilerplate corporate asshole character who’s transported into the ranks of All-Time Great Villains by his weird-as-fuck appearance. The man is a few catchphrases away from becoming a Joel Schumacher Batman villain (and for once, I mean that as a compliment).
What also helps make The Fifth Element so much fun is the charm of its cast. Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas gives what might be the best performance of an ’80s action movie star in a sci-fi flick. While both Ahnold and Stallone had been in their share of sci-fi classics, they were always themselves. Their larger-than-life personas always overpowered whatever fictional universe they were tossed into. Willis uses his smartass, world-weary reluctant hero schtick to great effect in The Fifth Element. While his Dallas is a competent, tough hero, he never seems larger than life or above the material. He works as the perfect straight man in a world where everyone else looks and acts like a lunatic.
Milla Jovovich’s performance as Leeloo was the prototype for her future career as a cheesy sci-fi/horror action star. It’s also her best performance in that mode. Alice in the Resident Evil always felt like a flat and chilly character – like a 13 year old boy’s idea of how a badass chick is supposed to act. In Leeloo, Jovovich plays a character who’s both incredibly tough and playful. She’s the Child Assassin/Woman As God trope that Besson uses in The Professional and Lucy, but in this film that character type doesn’t feel creepy (hello again, The Professional) or over-powered (Lucy).
The rest of the film is rounded out by a game supporting cast: Ian Holm as the determined Father Cornelis; Oldman’s sinister and Gary Numan-on-acid looking arms dealer Zorg; Tucker as Ruby Rhod (aka what would happen if you spliced together David Bowie and Kevin Hart); Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr. as the second biggest President in sci-fi movie history (only out-flexed by Terry Crews’ Mountain Dew Camacho in Idiocracy); and even trip-hop icon Tricky as Zorg’s hapless Right Arm man.
But at the end of the day, you could take out the winning ensemble and the action scenes (that still hold up) and you’d still be left with a beguiling and stellar film experience. Full to the brim with weird details and world-building, it’s like the Mos Eisley cantina scene blown up to feature length. For a film that never had a sequel (Besson’s upcoming Valerian film is the closest he’s ever come to doing a spiritual sequel), it depicts a universe teeming with storytelling possibilities. It may be in many ways a big dumb sci-fi action movie, but it’s smart enough to know that whatever stories we can imagine about the freaky characters spotted in the margins of The Fifth Element will be more interesting than anything a cash-in sequel could cook up.