A few weeks ago, I brought home a stack of movies from Wizard’s DVD closet. I was just looking for flicks that I hadn’t seen before and one of them was The Fifth Element, a movie I distinctly remember being interested in when it came out (I was 14 of the time), but just never saw for whatever reason. When I brought it home, my wife Emily seemed pretty excited, she remembered watching and liking (not loving) it. Well, the weather was pretty crummy on Sunday, so we stayed in and watched:
The Fifth Element (1997)
Written and Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker and Luke Perry
Going in, I knew very little about The Fifth Element, so here’s the deal for those of you who haven’t seen it: there’s these lumbering mechanical armadillo turkey aliens called the Mondoshawan who kept stones representing the four elements (wind, earth, fire, water) on earth that are part of a super-weapon. An ancient line of priests kept the secrets of the stones for the day when this big crazy planet of death (called the Great Evil) would come. In 1914, they come back to Earth and take the stones back with them. 300 years in the future, the Great Evil is alive and kicking and the priest wants to get his hands on the stones. Too bad these shape-shifing aliens called the Mangalores blast the Mondoshawan ship carrying the stones out of the sky (well, space). To figure out what happened with the stones, some scientists clone the last surviving Mondoshawan hand from the ship into a woman, called Leeloo (Milla).
Okay, so those are the basics. Getting back to the beginning of the movie for a moment, I really like the design of the Mondoshawan. Personally, I’ve never seen an alien race that looks like this, so props to the design department for creating these guys. Speaking of the design details, fun note to comic fans, French artists Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières had a hand in the overall design for The Fifth Element. Anyway, the Mondoshawan show up in 1914 to the shock of Luke Perry, playing an artist/assistant to an archaeologist. I never watched 90210 back when it was on (seriously, I’d tell you if I did), but I did find him very charming and convincing in a roll that I wish had somehow carried over into the future sequences (especially if he could have replaced the ridiculously annoying Chris Tucker character Ruby Rhod, but more on him later).
So the aliens come, grab their toys and leave a key with the secret priests, then head into space and we head 300 years to the future where we meet Korben Dallas (Willis) who has an apartment that would make Tim “The Toolman” Taylor proud. I’d like to see such space-saving furniture and appliances in the near future. Willis basically plays the same character he played for most of the ’90s: tough, rough around the edges, but, in the end, a good man. And I don’t mean that as a dig. I’ve got no problem with a guy doing what he does best, few people could pull it off like Willis. That being said, I’m glad to see him spreading out in the past decade.
Anyway, Dallas is a a former military man who now works as a cabby with plenty of points on his license. While we get introduced to Korben, the aforementioned Mondoshawan ship crashes and the scientist explains that their DNA is so highly complex and perfect, that a whole Mondoshawan can be cloned from a hand. They put the hand in a cool, tube-looking machine that, a few moments later, produces Milla in an awkward looking suit of white bandages. They go on about how she’s perfect, but I’m not as much of a Milla fan as, say, Diggnation’s Kevin Rose (my fellow podcast fans know what I’m talking about). So, Milla, who we eventually finds out is called Leeloo (and is also the fifth element), escapes from her creators, wrecking shop on a bunch of cops (who look like they borrowed their fashion sense from Judge Dredd and Flavor Flav) and leaping to her possible death.
Luckily for her, the future has flying cars (which, again, look awesome) and good dudes like Korben Dallas driving flying cabs because she smashes right through his roof, landing in the backseat. Korben contemplates turning her over, even letting the police connect their cars with a wire before rethinking things and speeding off in one of the coolest flying car chase scenes I’ve seen. We get our best look at the future society in these scenes, including the proliferation of McDonald’s (but, really, who’s shocked by this?) and a filthy underground that resembles many other future-based movies both before and after.
Leeloo eventually guides Dallas to Father Vito Cornelius (Holm), the current priest keeping the secrets of the Mondoshawan, who recognizes Leeloo because of her element tattoo (which must be part of her DNA I guess, like her crazy orange hair). Cornelius kicks Dallas out, who returns home to find out he got fired from his cab-driving job.
Meanwhile, the big bad guy, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (who sports a pretty annoying accent and haircut, but still makes a creepy villain) (Oldman) meets up with the Mangalores, offering them some pretty rad guns that shoot bullets, fire, ice, etc. in exchange for the case holding the four stones. Did I mention that if a bad guy assembles the stones around himself in the pyramid on Earth, he’ll get all kinds of powers? Okay, consider it mentioned. Zorg gets pretty peeved when it turns out that case they got from the crash is actually empty, a fact that Leeloo, whose back with the priest still, knows. Turns out they’re on a pleasure cruiser (in space) called Fhloston Paradise. Zorg blows up a number of the Mangalores before leaving.
The government (remember, Dallas used to be in some kind of military), rigs a contest that he wins to send him to Fhloston Paradise. I forget how they find out about it, but when they do, Zorg’s bug (an actual remote-controlled bug with a camera in the president’s command center) tips Zorg off. The Mangalores are also on the trail, using a mistaken identity, thinking it’s Dallas. There’s a somewhat confusing scene in which the military comes to tell Dallas about their plan, then Leeloo and the priest show up and finally the police. Korben hides the three military people in his refrigerator which sinks into the floor to reveal a shower. He then hides Leeloo in the shower and the priest on his hide-a-bed by the time the cops show up. Somehow they get mistaken that a neighbor is Dallas (I’m not really sure how this worked). Besson played this gag really well, using the apartment he already set up in a great, claustrophobic way that actually had me worried they he’d get caught and relived when he didn’t.
Cornelius grabs Dallas’ winning tickets to Fhloston Paradise and makes off with Leeloo, something that Dallas shortly realizes and heads to the spaceport, just barely making it in time to replace the priest’s assistant on the trip. Cornelius finds out about this and sneaks his way onto the spaceship. Oh, also, this is where the movie takes it’s (in my opinion) biggest misstep by introducing Ruby Rhod in the flesh.
I’m not really sure what his character’s supposed to be. He’s some kind of superstar radio DJ, but his continued stuttering and way-too-fast-and-high-pitched dialog drove me crazy. I was hoping the whole time he was on screen that a stray bullet would end my misery. Jar Jar Binks didn’t bother me this much. Seriously. I almost turned it off 10 minutes into his first real appearance, but I was intrigued enough to stick with it.
Now that all the players are on a pretty dangerous locale (the equivalent of a cruise ship floating through space) the action really starts to ramp up. Even while a tentacled blue alien called Diva sings in some pretty crazy tones. Leeloo rumbles with some of the Mangalores in the Diva’s room (she’s the one that has the stones on the ship, I shoulda mentioned that before), the Mangalores don’t like what’s going on, so they abandon their “covert” plan and just decide to take over the whole ship. One of them even kills the Diva, who explains to Dallas that the stones are inside her. We then get treated to a pretty gross, but cool scene of Dallas pulling the stones out of the hole in her torso. You know what would have made it cooler? No Ruby, who spends the rest of the movie being annoying right next to our hero. Jerk. I’d like to think that the Bruce Willis of Lucky Number Slevin or Sin City would just plug him, call it collateral damage and continue saving the universe.
Zorg’s also sneaking around. He gets his hands on the case that he thinks has the stones, seemingly kills Leeloo and then sets the ship to explode before taking off.
Zorg realizes he doesn’t have the stones so he returns to the ship, stopping his own destruct countdown, but Korben and crew are already on the run. Too bad for Zorg that a dying Mandalore sets off his own bomb that destroys the mostly-evacuated pleasure cruiser.
An interesting thing about The Fifth Element is that the bad guys don’t seem to know who Korben Dallas is (even though it turns out that he worked for Zorg’s company as a cab driver). It’s not like the Mangalores care who he is when they first get on the ship (only once he starts blasting the crap out of them while leaping through the air, does he become an annoyance), even though he’s in direct opposition to them. Also, he never meets Zorg in the film once, even though they’re supposedly the opposite numbers in the flick. It’s an element that I like which sets this movie apart from a lot of others which seem to think that the good guy and the bad guy HAVE to face off at some point, regardless of how cliched it might seem.
What we do get to see is a race-the-clock situation in which Korben, Leeloo (she’s beat up pretty bad, but not dead), Cornelius and Ruby (for some reason) race to the pyramid on Earth and try to figure out how to use the stones and Leeloo (she’s the fifth element by the way) to stop the Great Evil, which is racing towards Earth to destroy it. Due to some dumb luck (and sighing), the men figure out how to activate the four stones and Dallas figures out how to activate Leeloo (the fifth element appears to be love). Upon kissing, the stones shoot beams into her and she shoots a beam out at the Great Evil which explodes.
We end with the president showing up at the science lab that created Leeloo to congratulate the pair, but they’re having sex in the regeneration tube. Nice, Korben. I like the James Bond-like ending.
A few other thoughts. A friend told me he didn’t think the movie takes itself seriously as a sci-fi movie, but I don’ think that’s the case. To me, all the performances seem sincere, even the cursedly annoying Ruby. It does have a bit of a cartoony feel to it, especially with Willis in the lead, but it’s a fun kind of cartoon, one that I would gladly watch Saturday mornings. No, it’s definitely not Star Wars, but I don’t want another Star Wars, I’ve already got a bunch of those.
In the end, I’m glad I watched The Fifth Element, it proved an entertaining ride that was able to keep my waning attention. It was fun and like Em, I liked it, though I didn’t love it. I don’t think 14-year-old me would have felt cheated if I laid down money for this back ’97.