The Fifth Element

In the future according to "The Fifth Element," the Supreme Being is a supermodel, absolute evil is a big ball of molten lava -- and the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.


Scott Rosenberg
June 9, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

the four elements? Medieval science said they were earth, air, fire and water. "The Fifth Element" posits one more: Call it love, beauty, the life-force, the Supreme Being.

Of course, we've moved beyond medieval science. The periodic table has a bit more credibility in my book, and according to it, the fifth element is, appropriately enough, boron. As you sit through the interminable two-hours-plus that constitute "The Fifth Element" -- a colossally stupid, overbearingly pompous new movie by Luc Besson -- you can expect to become acquainted with boredom on the most elemental level.

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It's not the kind of austere boredom that marked "The Final Combat," Besson's 1984 debut feature, in which silent nomads staggered wordlessly about a post-apocalyptic landscape with pieces of quilting on their forearms and shreds of tire on their calves. "The Fifth Element's" vision of the future 300 years from now is rather busy and colorful; it's no cyberpunk nightmare -- although any future in which everyone wears grotesque costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier is some kind of nightmare.

The boredom here, unfortunately, is the more familiar variety induced by mindless Hollywood-scale overkill and shameless Hollywood-style imitation. As it careens through its unwieldy mixture of action-movie pyrotechnics, science-fiction special effects, comic-book humor and New Age mumbo-jumbo, "The Fifth Element" flaunts its borrowings and references in every scene. There's an "Indiana Jones"-style prologue set in an Egyptian crypt; a quick-cut transition from past to future out of "2001"; a "Blade Runner"-style cityscape (lightened up a bit) with deep-canyoned streets filled with flying automobiles; and a "Star Wars"-like death star that takes the form of a roiling lava-globe, headed straight for Earth.

The movie's arbitrary premises and plotting might have embarrassed the creators of "Flash Gordon": Every 500 years, it seems, absolute evil returns to the universe in the form of that lava-globe. To stop it you must place four magic Stones atop four pedestals in that Egyptian temple. Then all you need is for the Supreme Being to show up and, well, do something, and you're all set. The Supreme Being, it turns out, is named Leeloo and played by rail-thin, Slavic supermodel Milla Jovovich. She makes her entrance on a Frankensteinian slab and spends much of the movie spouting a pidgin gibberish that sounds like a cross between Italian and Croatian and is, in fact, "the ancient language, the divine language, spoken in the universe before time was time." Such helpful information is frequently provided by Ian Holm, in the role of a centuries-old priest who bears the secret of the Stones (and no, it has nothing to do with how Brian Jones died).

Lots of aliens and villains are also after those Stones, and so "The Fifth Element" is filled with pointless chase scenes and shootouts in which Bruce Willis, as a generically heroic cab driver and former military pilot, gets to know, love and protect Jovovich's Leeloo. She turns out not to need too much protection; like Besson's waif fatale heroine in his "La Femme Nikita," she's a mean warrior herself -- taking out an entire platoon of elephant-faced aliens with her bare hands and feet. Despite this evident martial prowess, the movie's moral crisis arrives when she bones up on mankind's history, learns about the horrors of war and wonders if Earth is worth saving: "Everything you've created, you use to destroy!" (By this point in the movie, she has learned English as a second language, making her about as eloquent as the screenwriters themselves.)

Before it arrives at this moment of truth, "The Fifth Element" has taken long detours to display Gary Oldman as a foppish, limping munitions dealer named Zorg and Chris Tucker as a foppish, strutting talk-show host named Ruby Rhod -- a kind of cross between RuPaul and Prince -- who hijacks the movie for his own manic production number. "The Fifth Element's" notion of fun is to have rocket-ship launches fired up by Rastas with blowtorches (William Gibson did this stuff much more imaginatively in his novels), skimpily dressed stewardesses of the future getting humped in space-terminal hallways and an alien operatic diva singing an aria from "Lucia di Lammermoor" as lavender foam tentacles dangle from her ears and chest.

Now, any movie with a character named Zorg should not also ask moviegoers to think seriously about the nature of evil and the horrors of war. Besson exercises no control over the movie's tone, which veers madly between cynical "Batman"-style camp and idealistic "Star Wars"-style morality play.

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It's no joke: Science fiction movies really are getting stupider by the year. "The Fifth Element" easily outdoes "Stargate," plot point by ludicrous plot point. It's the kind of film where characters battle aliens for hours until someone finally remembers that this species will stop fighting if you kill their leader!

"The Fifth Element" has all the self-indulgent markings of a pet auteurial project. Besson has called it his life's work, his dream, first conceived when he was a lad of 16 and carefully protected from commercial pressures until its final unveiling this week at the opening of the Cannes Film Festival.

His backers at Sony and Gaumont did, apparently, insist that he cut it down to manageable size. So much, in fact, was cut to make it releasable that there's apparently already a sequel in the wings. What loving Supreme Being will appear from outer space to save us from that fate?


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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