THE FIFTH ELEMENT, 1997
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry
Review by Emma Hutchings
A former government agent grudgingly sets out on a quest to save the world from an ancient evil after the only hope of thwarting destruction falls into the back seat of his cab.
OSCAR NOMINEE for Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing
The Fifth Element is Luc Besson’s big budget futuristic blockbuster, which, at the time, was the most expensive film ever produced outside of Hollywood. Besson again called on the might of Gary Oldman to play the bad guy, following his fantastic performance in Léon (1994). Besson helped out as producer on Nil by Mouth (Oldman’s hard-hitting directorial debut), which was also released in 1997 and also starred Charlie Creed-Miles (Cornelius’ protégé David in The Fifth Element and Billy in Nil by Mouth).
This film is a visual extravaganza. The rich and vibrant colours ensure that the future is a bright and appealing one, not bleak and dystopian, as in so many futuristic films. Besson said that he wanted to show a vision of the future that wasn’t dark and dangerous. Mark Stetson, the Special Visual Effects Supervisor on the film, who had previously worked on Blade Runner, said “One of the most gratifying aspects of working with Luc on this picture is the fact that it’s not another Blade Runner. The look of this film is very different and fresh.” What comes across most about the visual effects is the amazing attention to detail. The shots of 23rd century New York are some of the highlights. Leeloo’s POV shot when she sees the skyline for the first time is remarkable. The skyscrapers, packed closely together, ascend high into the clouds, with subways zooming up and down their sides and the areas in between packed with flying cars. The quirky, original costumes were designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, who even checked over the extras individually before scenes to make sure they were looking their best. Two famous French comic book artists, Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières developed the production design. They were responsible for much of the iconography of the film; the vehicles, spacecrafts, buildings, human characters and aliens.
There are references to other films in The Fifth Element. Although described as the Anti-Blade Runner, the cityscape with enormous advertising screens and the flying cars are definite similarities. Brion James (who plays General Munro, Korben’s former commanding officer) played the character of Leon in Blade Runner. The machine that regenerates Leeloo is very similar to the one used to create the robot in Metropolis (1927). The thermal bandages that are strapped to her are reminiscent of the metal bands covering Maria when the Man-Machine is converted into her.
The story boils down to a straightforward good vs. evil narrative. A huge, dark sphere of absolute evil attempts to destroy Earth every 5,000 years and five elements are used together to stop this happening. Earth, wind, fire and water, along with the Supreme Being; an ultimate warrior created to protect life. A simple but effective technique used a number of times throughout the film is cross-cutting. Used to switch between action taking place in different locations at the same time, it is cleverly used here because characters often finish each other’s sentences. For example, when Zorg meets with Aknot (leader of the Mangalores) to exchange crates of weapons for the case of stones, he shuts the lid and then states “This case…is empty.” The scene then cuts to Leeloo laughing and Cornelius asks “What do you mean, empty?” Cut back to Zorg, who tells his lackey “Empty. The opposite of full. This case is supposed to be full! Anyone care to explain?” Cut back to Leeloo, explaining in the divine language that they gave the stones to someone they could trust. Cornelius says “We’re saved” and then a final cut back to Zorg, who says “I’m screwed.” This is an intelligent use of dialogue and editing that is both interesting and efficient.
Korben Dallas is rather a reluctant hero. He was living a lonely, uneventful life before Leeloo crashed through the roof of his cab. At the beginning of the film he says he wants to meet the perfect woman. He hasn’t had very good experiences with women; his wife left him for his lawyer and his mother continuously calls him just to moan at him. He is laconic and very humourous at times. When sent in to negotiate with the Mangalores, he casually strolls in and shoots their leader in the head asking, “Anyone else wanna negotiate?” It is interesting that our hero Korben and the villain of the film, Zorg, never meet or communicate with each other. Usually there would be an epic battle at the end where they would fight until the villain was killed. However, they narrowly miss bumping into each other as Korben gets into an elevator and Zorg leaves the one next to it, ultimately getting himself blown up by the Mangalore’s bomb. There is a connection between hero and villain though; Zorg gets rid of 1 million people from one of his smaller companies, a cab company, and in a later scene Korben gets a message telling him he’s fired. The name ‘Zorg’ is clearly visible at the bottom of the message.
Leeloo is the heroine of the film. Beautiful and very strong, she is often referred to as ‘perfect’. She is a fast learner, able to absorb large quantities of information; she learns 5,000 years worth of Earth’s history from a computer in a very short amount of time. She is kooky and has lots of funny moments in the film, usually when she is trying to understand certain words in the English language (“Big ba-dah boom”, “Auto-wash”, “Mul-ti-pass”). The ‘divine language’ spoken by Leeloo has 400 words and was invented by the director and Milla Jovovich. Jovovich stated that she and Besson wrote letters to each other in the language as practice and by the end of filming they were able to have full conversations.
The number 5 is a recurring motif in this film. Apart from the obvious 5 elements there are also lots of other notable occurrences. Evil returns every 5,000 years, Korben has 5 points left on his licence, the Council asks Zorg to fire 500,000 people, and Korben says to General Munro “Nice to see you in the 5,000 block”. The bomb in Fhloston Paradise has around 5 minutes left when Ruby notices it, Zorg stops it with 5 seconds remaining and the Mangalore’s bomb counts down from 5 seconds. Ruby’s radio show starts at 5, Korben says “If we don’t get these stones open in 5 minutes, we’re all dead.” Ruby says “”Every 5 minutes there’s something, a bomb or something!” and right at the end the scientist says “They’re not ready. They need 5 more minutes.”
Any observant viewers (actually that should be listeners) may notice two occurrences of the infamous ‘Wilhelm Scream’, a distinctive sound effect that has found a following with many sound editors and movie fans. First used in Distant Drums, a 1951 film starring Gary Cooper, it was later adopted by sound designer Ben Burtt who named it after the character of Pvt. Wilhelm in The Charge at Feather River (1953) who screams when he is shot in the leg by an arrow. Burtt included it in many of the films he has worked on including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. It grew in familiarity and continues to be heard in new productions released every year. In The Fifth Element it can be heard when Zorg blows up Right Arm at the airport and during Leeloo’s fight with the Mangalores, as two are sent flying out of the Diva’s suite (turn the volume up for this one).
The film ends after the world is saved by the power of love. Leeloo finishes learning all about Earth on the computer and becomes particularly disturbed by W for War. She watches all of the images flash by of chaos and destruction and she despairs at how people could do such things to each other. She tells Korben, “Everything you create, you use to destroy” and he replies “Yeah, we call it human nature.” Her faith in humanity needs to be restored in order for her to save them, Korben must show her the world has some good and there are beautiful things worth saving, like love. She doesn’t know love, she says “I was built to protect, not to love”. She needs him to tell her that he loves her, this empowers her and she draws on the other four elements and destroys the ancient evil. Earth is rescued from annihilation and the two of them can live happily together (he’ll need to get another job though). I highly recommend this film. It has a great cast of actors all having a good time, the visuals are fantastic and it’s very enjoyable as long as you don’t take it too seriously.