Throughout this review you will notice that Ridley Scott's milestone sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner keeps cropping up. I firmly believe that in creating and filming The Fifth Element director and writer Luc Besson was consciously attempting to subvert, parallel and evolve the themes and ideas, visually and emotionally, that Scott had so majestically and innovatively brought to the screen, thereby developing a “Blade Runner” for a new generation. Lofty ambitions, indeed. Ambitions that, at best, were only partially successful. But whilst Blade Runner keeps on gaining new devotees, The Fifth Element ran the gauntlet of audience dismay and incredulity, critical and art-house praise and a cult status that is, at once, precarious and notorious.
It is New York in the year 2257 and taxi-driver, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), gets a most unexpected passenger in the form of scantily-clad adult newborn Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), an elemental prodigy that has sprung to life in the test-tube of some bickering and bewildered scientists. Babbling crazed alien/ancient cosmic patois, and sporting a shock of bright orange hair, Leeloo is now on the run with only Korben -who, it turns out, is an ex-Special Forces veteran - to help her. With the government after her, a crazed religious fanatic called Vito Cornelius (an alarmingly mood-switched Ian Holm) eager to use her to fulfil an age-old prophecy and a huge, planet-sized sphere of evil chewing up the light-years between it and Earth, things are going to get busy. And colourful. Oh, yes ... and stupid ... very, very stupid.
“Aziz ... light!”
1997 was a big year for sci-fi and fantasy films. We had The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Men In Black, Starship Troopers, Alien Resurrection and Event Horizon, amongst others. The result of such a genre deluge was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, with sequels that either didn't add up (Alien Resurrection) or were just unwanted in the first place (Batman And Robin) and originals that, perhaps, should never have been (Ray Liotta's Unforgettable) alongside smash-hits that came seemingly out of nowhere (Men In Black and The Relic). But Luc Besson's out-of-this-world offering of the fabulous and the fantastique was one of the most eagerly anticipated. With a production that had been kept incredibly hush-hush and leaked images that seemed positively mind-boggling, I have to admit that this was one film that I had great hopes for. The man behind the mighty Leon, Nikita and The Big Blue helming a sweeping sci-fi extravaganza, starring Bruce Willis - I mean, come on, how was this baby going to go wrong?
In a word, spectacularly. Or, as Jovovich's “perfect creation” so aptly puts the experience of crashing through the roof of Korben's flying taxi, “Big badda-boom!” It is no lie that Blade Runner, fifteen years earlier, was also deemed an outrageous failure by critics and audiences alike who seemed to shrink away from it in droves. This time out, though, people flocked to see Besson's Euro-tinged fantasy, practically expecting to discover the new genre milestone that would change the face of science fiction because the movie had arrived amid such hype. Excitable reviews from Jonathon Ross, coming across more like the tabloid-automaton “Paul” Ross, lifted The Fifth Element to a whole new dimension and placed it on a pedestal that screamed attention to itself.
“In three hundred years, when Evil returns ... so shall we.”
This time out, Willis doesn't get a Brucie-bonus. As the cabbie-with-skills-from-a-prior-life, he splashes out in a day-glo orange vest (about as far removed from sweaty John McClane's combat-attire as you can get) and sports a little tuft of alarmingly blonde hair. Strutting through an environment painted all the shades of the incandescent; his reluctant hero is a pure anachronism to Besson's beatific utopia. No matter how you dress him up, Willis projects the aura of a boxer and the wry smarts of a professional chancer. It isn't that the actor doesn't deliver the goods - in fact, he's very engaging and was, in actual fact, at the top of his game before this recent renaissance with the likes of Sin City and Die Hard 4.0 - but as the only actually macho thing in the entire movie, it can often feel as though he is the straight guy suckered into attending a gay club, with everyone around him either swooning at his feet or lampooning him behind his back, and Willis just gritting his teeth in a fake smirk throughout the whole masquerade. The balance here is wrong, I feel. We have the need to associate with Korben Dallas, though there is never the impression that we could see ourselves in his situation in the same manner as we can with, say, Die Hard's hero, or Deckard in Blade Runner. Irritating phone-calls from his mother and some inept slapstick routines in his cramped apartment bog him down and reduce him to little more than a playful stooge. The action, when it comes, is unexciting and tinged with farce, leaving Bruce without a new derring-do badge, and the entire love-quest angle is a real mismatch between him and Jovovich. Character empathy is a fickle thing at the best of times, and so easily manipulated when it comes to the good guy. But The Fifth Element snuffs out our spark of intuition with Dallas all too quickly.
And if our association with the hero is stifled, then our reactions to the main villain of the piece are an unmitigated disaster.
Gary Oldman, the normally excellent Gary Oldman, is sheer calamitously bad casting for the role of the galactic rogue Zorg. A sneering buffoon of classroom petulance, coiffured with an oily wedge of hair sliming up both his head and his chin and a bizarre lump of plastic headgear that looks like the template for a breast-implant. Read into that what you will. Even in Besson's and, costume-designer for the movie,Jean-Paul Gaultier's already fashion-snobbish universe, his outrageous image is uncomfortable and, well, stupid. Ming the Merciless and his Mongo-minions didn't fare much better in either the original black and white serial, or especially the Sam Jones remake, but somehow those costumes fitted in more easily, elevating the visual style of the works they were in without humiliating their characters too much. This is cat-walk tom-foolery that reduces any shred of credibility, even before Oldman opens his mouth to spout his lip-curlingly malicious, but inane megalomania in an unprovoked American Deep South drawl. It has to be said, though, that his mercenary band of Mangalorian morons are, admittedly, a hoot. They may look like they are wearing nothing more expressive than Doctor Who prosthetic heads, but there is a terrific sense of dumb-fun about them. Sporting colossally large weapons of awesome firepower, these leathery-chopped dragoons become one of the film's successes. Lumbering around the spacious sets with all the dexterity of a horde of drunken rhinos, they are the bumbling henchmen, or canon-fodder for Willis to take on during the extended, but sadly tedious, shootout in the second act.
The break-out star and alluring discovery of the film is, of course, Milla Jovovich, who strikes such a vulnerable image as the fragile, yet all-powerful Leeloo that many of her scenes carry a genuine sense of alien empathy. She is so exotically other and delightfully sexually-charged that we can forgive that annoying orange hair-do and mangled, thousand-word-a-minute dialogue. When we see the future world through her eyes, Besson does manage to capture a sense of giddy wonder, the image literally opening up for us as Leeloo stands in perhaps the most precarious “Picture-Spot” you can imagine - the narrow ledge of a mile-high skyscraper. Although the film tries extremely hard to keep such breathtaking scenes coming at us, it never again packs such a wallop as this. Indeed, the film loses pace quite considerably during its second half at precisely the point where it should have gone into overdrive. Once Leeloo and Korben, on a mission to procure some sacred inter-galactic stones that will thwart the alien menace, arrive on the pleasure ship Floston Paradise, in orbit around a planet completely given over to hedonistic harmony, the story descends into pure parody and one extremely elongated joke. That it is Jovovich who still manages to rise above this tasteless fiasco - barring one incredibly dumb martial arts skirmish she has with a troop of delinquent Mangalorians - is proof that the actress had burgeoning talent at least once in her career.
“You've been selected for a mission of the utmost importance.”
“To save the world.”
I can't leave out Chris Tucker's audience-eviscerating performance, can I? He's that elongated joke I referred to earlier. At the cinema, along with a teeming throng of pretty hyped-up sci-fi fanatics salivating over the drop-dead gorgeous visuals and pure sensory-overload smorgasbord of imagery, Tucker's futuristic DJ/celebrity Ruby Rhod was the major fly in the exotic ointment. There was simply no getting away from him and his high-pitched whining, rubber-faced gurning and blazing ping-pong ball eyes. Cruelly egged-on to a level of over-indulgence that is stratospherically above and beyond the call of duty, the infamous comedian lays it on thick, loud and incessantly. I still shudder when I recall the practically unified reaction from the audience around me when Tucker's Rhod did his/its thing - abject horror, at first, and then a strange, quiet tolerance that went on for a lengthy, but puzzled while. But when Rhod's unholy verbal combination of lip-flapping jibber-jabber and quasi-larynx-aching speech buzz just went on and on, the feeling turned to disbelief and anger. People walked out of the showing, practically nauseated by Tucker's infernal refusal to SHUT UP and even my friends, die-hard moviegoers to a one, were off the edge of their seats and on the brink of leaving, as well. Now matter how outrageous the film wants to be, no matter how individual - this needless component is just plain wrong. Luc Besson's notion, of course, may have been to cause exactly this sort of love it or loath it controversy all along. But, in doing so, the filmmaker lost one hell of a lot of potential fans who were, up until this moment, teetering on the cusp of embracing the movie and its way-out mood. Ian Holm, on the other hand, appears a little strained at having to play a madcap monk, but, perhaps because he is a tad uncomfortable with the comedy he manages to pull it off quite admirably.
Musically, the film deliberately does things that haven't been done before, or since. Eric Serra, a regular score composer for Luc Besson, does not appeal to me as a rule. I have always found his electro-orchestral combinations brusque, ill-fitting and, more often than not, hugely inappropriate - Goldeneye, anyone? But, typically for such a trip-out collision of ideas and images as The Fifth Element, he manages to combine moments of melodic beauty with passages of utter twaddle, concocting a score that is, in no particular order, eclectic, experimental, ethnic and excruciating. The main themes for Leeloo and the mystical stones are pleasing and suitably emotional, but the slapdash comic asides of infernal rap and effects-rife samplings can't help but irritate. The aria issuing from the lips of the blue-skinned, tentacle-headed Diva, played by Maiwenn Le Buco, is a memorable cue, though. Actually sung by Inva Mulla Tchako, this sequence is slightly recalled with the moody scene in Revenge Of The Sith when Palpatine whispers dark deeds into Anakin's ear at the opera house. Perhaps here, The Fifth Element really finds its outer-worldly magic. All the gun-toting beasts, outlandish costumes, cosmic clouds and bio-mechanical spacecraft in the rest of the film put together struggle to capture even the merest hint of the existential spirit exhibited with this atmospheric performance. Serra also harks back to the intrusive, over-produced blaring that sledge-hammered Prince's tracks into Tim Burton's original Batman, the conjunction, once again, brash and far too pumped-up to be comfortable. Like every facet of the production, the score is too much, too often.
Take the riotous campery of 1980's Flash Gordon, the vast scope of Metropolis, the theme of approaching threat from several Star Trek adventures and throw in the scattershot unpredictability of a gaudy, Euro-trash hallucination and you're probably halfway towards finding the heart of Besson's individualistic fantasy. In a great many ways, The Fifth Element is the anti - Blade Runner - colourful and expansive where Scott's vision is dark and claustrophobic; episodic and ethereal whilst Scott's film is intense and psychological. Yet, curiously, both movies contain many similarities as well ... not least that both utilise the actor Brion James in a supporting role. Both depict a future that is overcrowded and rigidly governed, with cosmopolitan societies that climb to the clouds in order to find space to breathe. Both tease their populations with the promise of “Off World” pleasures and lifestyles better than those available on Earth. And, essentially, both choose to celebrate life, itself, as the ultimate ideal above and beyond any technological advances these brave new worlds may have, otherwise, made. But whereas Blade Runner makes a deeply emotional and painfully poignant examination of life and death and what it means to be human, The Fifth Element soaps up such heady theologising into a luxuriant lather of love ... interstellar, inter-species, in and out of time love. It is a hippy-trippy ethic elaborately wrapped up in sparkly paper and a big flamboyant bow and then placed inside a multi-coloured snow-globe. Besson doesn't want his future dark, so he turns on all the lights and decides that utopia should be a whole heap of giggly fun. But his idea of fun is uniquely zany, liberal and narratively flawed and, as such, can't hope to have universal appeal. There may be much to enjoy with the movie - some sight gags (check out the filters on the future's cigarettes!), some crafty double-crossing and, in particular, the frivolous way in which Besson toys with religion - but the in-house, anything-goes style seems hell-bent on corrupting that enjoyment during its second act with far too much idiocy and wallowing, self-righteous pop mythologizing. There's room in the medium for both examples of fantastical storytelling ... but I know which one I prefer. And it doesn't come with fashions designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, that's for sure.
Camp comedy? Gaudy excess? Self-indulgent and fantastical ode to that most indefinable and elusive of human emotions? Besson's most over-the-top slice of audio-visual eccentricity is all these things, and more. The fact that it doesn't hang together, outstays its welcome by a good half hour and features a couple of performances (well, three, if you count the appalling Lee Evans slot as well) that drag the material beneath the level of the lowest, naffest pantomime means that The Fifth Element is most assuredly an acquired taste. To be honest, if this film was a pill, you would have to scrape the sugar coating off it in the first place in order to swallow it. And, even then, there may well be unwelcome side-effects.
According to Luc Besson, the future's bright ... and according to Gaultier it wears an orange vest!
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