THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Violence, some Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Charlie Creed-Miles, Brion James, Tricky, Tommy Lister Jr., Christopher Fairbank & Lee Evans

There are people who love THE FIFTH ELEMENT and people who loathe it. This sci-fi cult classic is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and has been enjoying a big screen revival at various movie theaters. Having never actually sat through this entire movie (I know, shame on me) and being (mostly) a fan of director/writer Luc Besson, I decided to give his odd opus a go. THE FIFTH ELEMENT is goofy and some elements haven’t stood the test of time, but it remains fun and humorous nonetheless.

In the distant future of 2263, an ancient prophecy is coming to light. The fate of the world is near as a planet-sized evil approaches Earth. The only thing that can stop the deadly giant orb has come in the form of four ancient stones and a gibberish-speaking alien, nicknamed Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). When Leeloo crashes through the roof of down-on-his-luck cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), this average guy is sucked into an adventure that involves a rogue priest (Ian Holm), an obnoxious radio host (Chris Tucker), a violent alien race, and evil weapons-dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman).

THE FIFTH ELEMENT doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The film opens with a prologue that nicely sets up the main premise, but also includes loads of comic relief and silly-looking aliens (they appear like they inspired the a few designs in 2005’s HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). There’s a constant sense of cheesiness throughout the film that feels deliberate and there’s rarely (if ever) a dramatic moment. Besson’s focus is on fun and he nails that aspect of this film, even if others fall by the wayside.

The visuals, aided by many special effects, bring an imaginative vision of the distant future to life. There are space cruises, layers upon layers of traffic (cars literally passing above each other), and compact apartments (that push furniture into the walls). Besson’s cinematic universe is cool to look at, but not all of the effects hold up. This is mainly true of CGI that looks very dated. The menacing evil planet appears to have come out of a Syfy Channel movie, though to be fair it was created with 1997 computer graphics. The evil alien race is brought to life through a combination of occasionally crappy CG, but mostly giant rubber suits that look pretty damn good.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT has two modes: action-packed and funny. It’s occasionally the former, until it reaches the end of a chaotic crescendo on a massive spaceship that sees many subplots colliding. The latter is a constant in the film as even gunfights have laugh-out-loud bits. One running joke about Korben’s nagging mother never ceases to be funny, while there are visual gags that are sure to guarantee a few giggles. Another series of mishaps at a space airport (in which many people claim to be Korben) is easily my favorite comedic scene in the entire film. With so much humor and action set pieces, the plot seems almost inconsequential. That’s a plus in this case, because there are convenient developments, half-assed mythologies and minor plot holes.

As far as performances go, everybody seems to be having a good time and that comes across in their acting. Bruce Willis plays Korben with his usual tough guy persona, serving as both an action hero and delivering well-timed comic zingers (a few of his best bits were improvised). Model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich gives probably the best performance of her career as an incoherent alien. Though she gets a few lines of English as the plot goes on, Jovovich’s heroine mainly acts through body language and facial expressions.

On the supporting side of things, Ian Holm is goofy as an exposition-spouting priest and occasionally gets to deliver a good laugh. Gary Oldman is allowed to ham it up as the villainous Zorg and effectively steals the show. Oldman’s over-the-top baddie gets many great scenes and I sort of wish that he had been the main antagonist, as opposed to the badly animated fiery planet that’s heading towards Earth. Mark my words, Chris Tucker (who usually annoys me to no end) actually made me laugh frequently throughout this film. This and the RUSH HOUR series might be the only films where Chris Tucker is actually funny. So there’s something to be said for that alone.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT suffers from cheesy CGI, muddled writing, and convenient plot developments. Still, this is a fun watch for viewers who are craving sci-fi entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously in any way, shape or form. Action and laughter are the two main elements of THE FIFTH ELEMENT. For the most part, it delivers both of those in spades. If this sounds up your alley, then this love-it-or-hate-it sci-fi cult classic may just be for you. You won’t know quite where you stand on it until you’ve seen it.

Grade: B

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