CAPSULE: THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker

PLOT: 300 years in the future, an ex-special ops agent turned taxi driver must collect four stones and discover the fifth element to stop the universe from being destroyed by evil, with the help of a scantily-clad supreme being.

Still from The Fifth Element (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Fifth Element is unique and has its devoted fans, but although it’s much busier and more colorful than the average Hollywood space opera, in the end, it’s not so much weird as simply chaotic and overstuffed.

COMMENTS: You can probably gauge your tolerance for The Fifth Element according to your tolerance for antic comedian Chris Tucker and his amphetaminic falsetto.  Although he’s not a major player in the story, for better or worse his blond, over-coiffed, simpering talk-show diva dominates every scene he’s in, and is emblematic of the grotesquely overdrawn elements that populate Besson’s world.  Furthermore, his unnecessary presence is introduced through a senseless plot contrivance (the idea that this Oprah-on-a-galactic-scale pop icon would be obsessed with building a broadcast around a non-celebrity contest winner), which is itself symbolic of the way the script seizes any opportunity to shoehorn in any idea that occurs to it.  A few of those ideas include a future New York City grown up to the sky and jam packed with flying cars, Milla Jovovivh as a cloned carrot-haired “supreme being” wrapped in a tiny ace bandage, and Gary Oldman as a villainous comic-relief corporate honcho with a southern accent and a dedicated phone line to receive important calls from Ultimate Evil.  It’s insanely baroque, and the craziness itself is the glue that holds it together even as the wild story makes only a token gesture at sense, relying instead on the viewer to fill in the gaps through their familiarity with conventions of other blockbuster “save the universe” sci-fi epics.  Although it starts out looking like a Die Hard/Raiders of the Lost Ark hybrid set in space, at approximately one hour in comic relief completely hijacks the movie when Oldman’s Zorg threatening meeting with a high priest ends with him choking on a cherry and frantically punching buttons for random automated tasks on his desk.  The comedy never looks back, and this reliance on humor is the film’s ultimate downfall, because it is not very funny.  It’s filled with characters comically fainting, or being shut inside a collapsible refrigerator as Bruce Willis frantically tries to entertain multiple guests in his shabby apartment, or Chris Tucker delivering yet another incomprehensibly high-pitched monologue.  The movie is messy as hell, bouncing back and forth from action to comedy to spectacle to apocalyptic mythology with an eight-year-old kid’s enthusiasm and attention span, and that lack of focus may make the movie come off as mildly weird to those used to more disciplined Hollywood epics.  The Fifth Element has one thing unconditionally in its favor: the costume and set design is masterful, keeping the eye busy and delighted even while the mind wanders off the plot.  The background characters are all so punked out that the few clean cut authority figures stand out as the weirdos.  Although The Fifth Element is a cult movie some people treasure precisely because of its idiosyncratic flaws, which make it unlike any other would-be blockbuster, I can’t count myself among them.

With it’s overwhelmingly American cast and genre, there’s little that’s distinctively French about this movie except its director, Luc Besson, who had previously scored arthouse and critical successes with the stylish La Femme Nikkita (1990) and Leon [The Professional] (1994).  Nonetheless, it was the most expensive French made film to date, surpassing the great weird fantasy The City of Lost Children [La cité des enfants perdus].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the great goofy movies–a film so preposterous I wasn’t surprised to discover it was written by a teenage boy. That boy grew up to become Luc Besson, director of good smaller movies and bizarre big ones, and here he’s spent $90 million to create sights so remarkable they really ought to be seen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Cannes premiere)

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