Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Fifth Element (1997)

Luc Besson’s attempt to generate blockbuster cash flow after his best work Leon (1994), stuck in my mind as a zany, creative, somewhat messy film. Returning to it, The Fifth Element struck me as a ramshackle assemblage of promising ideas and actors forced into an under-written and stodgily-paced hodgepodge. The essential plot makes for a great potential starting point for an action epic, if commencing with elements a bit too obviously cribbed from Stargate. Early in the 20th century, an absent-minded archaeologist (John Bluthal) and his pretty but dimwitted assistant (Luke Perry) discover an ancient, hidden chamber, forcing a mysterious priest (John Bennett) to try and poison them. Both labours are interrupted by the arrival of a group of bizarre, lumbering robotic aliens who come to shepherd away the four elemental stones and central ‘Fifth Element’ that form a millennia-old super-weapon located in the chamber, which the priest’s cabal is charged with protecting, to keep the objects safe, but expecting to return them in three hundred years when the colossal force of nameless evil the weapon was built to fend off returns. In the future, that force manifests in an age that’s part Star Trek, part Blade Runner, as the planet-sized evil entity destroys space ships and waits only long enough to adjust to its new universal environment before devastating all life in the cosmos, starting with Earth.

The aliens try to bring back the pieces of the weapon, but attacks by a band of mercenary shape-shifters, paid off by plutocrat Zorg (Gary Oldman), scatter them, and the remaining pieces of the fifth, most crucial element has to be synthesised by scientists. This element proves to be shaped like Milla Jovovich, calls herself Leeloo, and, panicked by the bullying of General Munro (Brion James), flees. She finishes up taking refuge with Bruce Willis, inflicted with a blonde cyberpunk rinse a la Christopher Lambert in Subway, who plays Korben Dallas, former soldier who’s now driving a taxi in a futuristic New York that’s taken high-rise to obscene levels. He delivers her, after some wild driving in eluding cops, to Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), the current head of the cabal of priestly guardians. Korbin is then drafted into finding and returning the four elemental stones, which are being protected by an opera-singing alien, Diva Plavalaguna (Ma├»wenn Le Besco) currently performing on a cruise ship on the other side of the galaxy, and he and Cornelius battle each-other and Zorg and his mercenaries in trying to fetch the stones back.

Perhaps no other film in his career reveals just how uneven a director Besson can be. Although he was and is criticised for Hollywoodising French cinema, he actually brought to the blockbuster template some fundamentally Gallic, streetwise wit. This shows through in the portrait of a future that’s been so commercialised, sexualised, and compartmentalised that nobody notices anymore, as drugged-up goons in bizarre hats perform stick up banditry and flight attendants wear uniforms fit for juvenile fantasies. Cigarettes are 75% filter, and car chases end with policemen buried in huge piles of McDonalds. No-one but a Frenchman could think up a plot twist where the future of the universe is literally inside an artist. There’s a garrulous time-out for a slice-of-life vignette amongst the proletarian guys who keep the spaceships running, smoking weed whilst loading fissionable material and burning off space barnacles, a tantalising gag for those of who ever wondered about who does such things in sci-fi movies.

The portrayal of futuristic New York as a den of flying cars and towering, glutted buildings seems to have highly influenced the cityscapes of Coruscant in the second Star Wars trilogy, and Jovovich’s Leeloo was one of the first and most visually dynamic not only of her own subsequent heroic parts, but of the raft of tensile martial-arts chicks about to become compulsory accessories in the action genre. The effervescent colour and detail that form the background, from the seamy charms of Earth with gigantic piles of garbage, to the environs of Phlotson Paradise, the off-world tourist resort that’s defined by a mixture of futuristic hedonism and Sun King ornateness, is eye candy in the most thorough sense of the phrase – kudos to DOP Thierry Arbogast. But just as often the conceptualism, particularly in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s campy costuming, with ludicrously clumsy aliens and clunky military uniforms, is often merely distracting and even stupid.

The more serious problems lie in Besson’s script (co-written with Robert Mark Kamen), with story progression that barely makes a lick of sense, full of frantic plot strands as various parties, most of whom are on the same side, compete to get hold of the stones. Considering that Cornelius has already been consulted by the government, crucial in making them aware of the secret alien plans and the history behind it, that he, them, and their agent Dallas should be constantly tripping over each-other’s toes is just confusion for the sake of it. Why Zorg is working for the Evil, what the Evil is, why the weapon was built and then situated on Earth, and other simple questions of why and what for are tossed aside, as if Besson hoped it would all be taken as mere parable, but it just feels patronising instead. Equally incoherent is why, with so little time to spare, the stones were hidden with Plavalaguna in the first place, and why such convoluted efforts were necessary to retrieve them.

Besson’s direction is often too interested in setting up fanciful cross-cutting jokes and not interested enough in sustaining tone and coherence. His methods do work occasionally, for the film’s best sequence, original and inventive on a number of levels, is one in which Leeloo takes on a squad of aliens, kicking their asses with grace and humour, whilst Korben listens to Plavalaguna, her initial operatic aria giving way to techno-inflected syncopation – a dynamic and hip bit of film making. But the action that follows is weirdly weak and awkwardly staged, and the attempt to conjure a note of emotional urgency as Leeloo, a perfect, selfless being who can be shattered by overt displays of evil, collapses in a shivering heap after comprehending the vastness of human potential for destruction (cue inevitable archival shots of Hitler), is employed far too late and far too spuriously to add urgency to the story.

Willis’s terse, frazzled performance (“I am a meat popsicle!”) and Jovovich’s tangy, spirited physicality both demand more room than they get to cut loose, but neither really gets to do anything like their best work. Oldman, so compellingly bizarre and savage in Leon, hams it up agreeably but finally ineffectually as Zorg, who, in spite of his string of French given names speaks with a broad Texan accent, with his best moment coming in an amusing demonstration of a weapon’s firepower. Holm, in one of those regulation Respected Brit Actor Slumming It For Fun and Profit roles (since monopolised by Ian McKellen), tries to have fun. Chris Tucker’s enthusiastically over-the-top performance as Ruby Rhod, an oversexed, freaked-out DJ who suggests a caricature of Prince filtered through a Manga lens, is an element I’ve changed my mind on: when I first saw the film, he looked like a bizarre distraction from the business of busting heads, but now it’s clear he embodies the hyped-up, cartoonish, twisted sense of cutting-edge kind of razzle-dazzle Besson was trying for as well as, if not better than, his own filmmaking. On the whole, however, The Fifth Element, in spite of the cornucopia of invention on screen, looks like a first draft of a good film.


J.D. said...

I dunno. While this film is visually stunning, evoking artwork from the pages of HEAVY METAL magazine, the film, for me, is almost single-handedly ruined by the presence of Chris Tucker who is annoying to the extreme. Every time he's on-screen he takes me out of the film, which is a shame because THE FIFTH ELEMENT has a lot going for it for all of its engaging pulpy nonsense.

Roderick Heath said...

Well, I've stated my case re: Tucker. I think it's the fact that the action and pacing were falling flat with me that his outright comedy caught my favour this time around.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

This is a really interesting review and you have some wonderful points and takes on it.

Your initial point of being messy is terrific. It is, but somehow it thoroughly worked for me [for the most part].

The Stargate point is another good one, although I like the zany elements of this a bit more [nearing Farscape territory].

You make great points about Besson and the pre-Star Wars effects. It's an impressive picture technically too. Although that blue alien costume is pretty weak. It really is. Most importantly it has Milla J! Oh la la.

In summation, I generally disagree with your closing remarks. Despite script issues and other issues you mentioned, The Fifth Element is a mostly successful bit of science fiction fun. It's imperfect, but it's fast and loose.

One major point of disagreement. I cannot bear Chris Tucker. Awful. I think your first instinct was correct. He's the worse thing about the film. Just noting the comments- I guess I agree with JD on this. He is the worst thing about the film. Jar Jar territory my friend. Thoughtful write-up!

But Tucker is one of the weakest elements in Fifth Element.

Roderick Heath said...

I knew I was courting disagreement when I wrote this review, Fanatic, but I stayed true to my reactions to the film as I encountered it: Tucker made me laugh several times, which is more than most of the other, more contiguous jokes did. As for the rest of it, the film worked for me the first time, in spite of the wobbles; returning to it, I was considerably disappointed. It is still fun, but there's potential here not lived up to, and that always frustrates me.