Space Opera For The Whole Family: “The Fifth Element”

Copyright © 1997 by Columbia Pictures.

The Fifth Element is one of those films that’s easy to recognize, mostly for its aesthetics (which are enchanting) and its plot (which is derivative).  I’ve heard it acclaimed both critically and culturally, although I’m not a huge fan of it myself.  It is, however, a good example of that science fiction sub-genre called “space opera,” even to the point of having an actual opera in space.

The Story: Good Fights Evil, Love Overcomes Greed… And Chris Tucker Just Does Things…

In 1914, we get a warning from a race of mystic aliens called the Mondoshawans about a “Great Evil” that tries to wipe out all life every five thousand years.  Cut to 2263, when the Great Evil is about to strike.  The Mondoshawans send an envoy named Leeloo to deliver these five stones that, when placed in their temple on Earth, will block the Great Evil’s attack.  However, an evil businessman named Zorg wants to thwart this plan, hiring alien mercenaries to capture the stones.  Leeloo gets help from an ex-commando-turned-cab driver named Korben Dallas, who in turn gets enlisted by the government to escort her to a spacefaring pleasure cruiser and ultimately collect all five stones to strike down the Great Evil.

The Cast: Did Someone Order A Large Helping of Ham?

Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is our hero protagonist, whose casual handling of crises and shootouts reminds me of his similar roles in Pulp Fiction and Die Hard.  Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is our foreign-sounding love interest and action girl, spending half her time trying to understand human beings (with the power of love!) and the other half kicking ass with gymnastics and punches.

The main human antagonist, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), is a bit more interesting.  His Southern twang clashes with his sophisticated sensibilities and his overall sociopathic demeanor.  Also, it’s a treat watching him overreact and overact, especially in regards to the “missing stones.”  The same, however, can’t be said for the Mangalores, the generic alien mercenaries who attack the heroes and compete with Zorg for the stones… just because.  They’re much like the Klingons of Star Trek; they mostly exist to oppose the heroes and look threatening.

There’s also the supporting cast, who don’t really contribute much except for laughs.  Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) provides a connection to the Mondoshawans and some exposition in the beginning, but otherwise ends up as a bumbling sidekick.  And then there’s radio host Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), who is there for comic relief… painful, ear-grating comic relief.

The Style: When The Background Has More Color Than The Cast…

Copyright © 1997 by Columbia Pictures.

Visually, this film is a treat.  Gargantuan skyscrapers reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, majestic vistas of space and Earth, the rich primary colors to be seen all throughout the space cruiser… it’s all there to be absorbed and to absorb.  More words than that cannot do this film justice.  It really has to be seen to be believed.

Final Verdict: Pretty And Action-Packed, But We’ve Seen It All Before

Most of my dissatisfaction with this film is that it feels rather dry.  The heroes are okay, the villains are over-the-top without much reason for being villainous, and the vaguely cosmic threat is defeated with the power of love.  Most of the dialogue is cliche, with either flat or melodramatic delivery.  There’s more attention to style than to substance.

But man does it have style…

Bibliography: The Fifth Element.  Directed by Luc Besson.  Produced by Patrice Ledoux.  Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.  Story by Luc Besson.  Perf. Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, and Chris Tucker.  Gaumont Film Company.  Columbia Pictures.  May 7, 1997.


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