Director: Luc Besson
Writers: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker, Ian Holm, Tommy Lister
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Action, Adventure
So Valerian is pretty but lifeless (our review here). Let’s revisit the good Luc Besson sci-fi action-adventure movie! 1997’s The Fifth Element, which plunges the viewer into a vision of the future where cities are vertical, cars can fly, and Bruce Willis has hair. This movie is a well-presented action story. What makes it remarkable is how it fires on all cylinders: the writing, acting, costumes, sets, music, and editing are not just all good but all working to create the same effect: a grimy, crowded, difficult world that is bursting with unexpected vitality.
Violence/Scary Images: Fistfights and gunfights, whole spaceships are destroyed.
Language/Crude Humor: D**n and similar words are used.
Spiritual Content: The antagonist is the personification of evil, and the central question of the movie is whether humanity is worth saving.
Sexual Content: Nudity is shown in passing several times, there are many revealing costumes, there is an obscured sex scene, and a brief explicit sex scene.
Drug/Alcohol References: People are shown drinking and smoking.
Positive Content: The protagonist decides that humanity is worth saving because of love.
Every five thousand years, Evil returns. It must be defeated by gathering the stones of the four elements around a Fifth Element – not a stone but a woman named Leeloo (Jovovich). She crash-lands into the taxi of ex-Special Forces (of course) taxi driver Korben Dallas (Willis), who basically falls in love with her right away. As they retrieve the four stones their relationship grows. The dialogue alone can’t really carry it, but Willis and Jovovich sell it with incredible performances.
Along the way Leeloo sees the violence of sentient life. As she puts it, “Everything you create is used to destroy.” At the climactic moment of defeating evil she isn’t sure that she wants to defeat it! Korben reminds her of all the beautiful things in the world, like love; and their kiss lets her activate the weapon and defeat evil. With the power of Love.
At one point Evil’s human servant, the Chanel-esque corporate titan Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Oldman), delivers a lovely monologue to priest Cornelius who works for the elements (Holm). “Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from disorder, destruction, and chaos.” Zorg breaks a glass and watches robots sweep it up, talking about the chain of productivity that this creates. Then he drinks from a new glass and chokes on a cherry. And Cornelius saves his life! Allowing Zorg to cause a great many problems in the second act of the movie. And yet it’s Zorg’s spaceship that lets our heroes get back to Earth in time to assemble the weapon. Saving life is good. Taking it is bad. The fabric of the movie shows that Korben’s action-star heroics are important but far from the whole story.
The Fifth Element is an action movie about the power of love. All the action scenes (great but slightly long-winded) exist to create space for romance. Violence is only worthwhile in defense of life, and what makes life worth living is love. How amazing is that? I’ve seen so many action movies about vengeance, justice, or survival, but almost none about love.
The power of love is conveyed in a movie that is well-directed but even better edited, with amazing cross-cutting between locations that make certain climactic scenes a whirlwind of action. At one point a spaceship taking off, Cornelius sneaking onto the spaceship, and an implied sex scene are cut together as parts of one coherent act. And then there is the diva scene, which I refuse to spoil through description.
The only thing I found troubling as I rewatched The Fifth Element was the way it handles sexuality. There is more nakedness than needed, but that’s par for the course. However, the sexuality is very male; it is male characters reacting to female characters. The most effective romances are the complementary synthesis of two different people. This seems obvious, I know, but… I guess my problem is that at the end of the movie I have seen Korben’s love for Leeloo, and I know why Leeloo needs to be reminded of love–but I haven’t seen Leeloo’s love for Korben. She has interacted with him generically as part of the life she needs to save. But she hasn’t reacted to him as a person.
I am perhaps over-analyzing the inner workings of mystical female instruments of divine salvation in 90s action movies. But this sleazy pattern undermines what the movie has to say about life. And it speaks to an ongoing problem in both the world and the church of Jesus: if masculine and feminine are different things, how can they create life together? I am not talking about just procreation but about the co-existence of masculine and feminine perspectives, duties, lives, and purposes. The ongoing debate about gender roles within the church has perhaps distracted us from the fact that life itself involves the feminine and masculine; that the question of how the two relate is an existential one that confronts every person in every culture. Humanity can’t escape it.
Modern popular culture usually answers this question by assimilating the female perspective into the male. The answer to the male action hero is the female action hero – who is exactly like the male, but with different genitalia. Female actors are included but that isn’t the same thing as feminine perspective. This isn’t an inevitable trend. The Fifth Element fumbles the question a bit; but at least it tried, and had fun doing it.
+ Co-ordination of design for sets, costumes, and sound + Good performances + Stylishly fun editing and direction
- A touch too long (mostly in the action scenes) - Treatment of female characters is slightly sleazy
The Bottom Line
The Fifth Element is a definitive B-movie action romance. It says that love makes life worth protecting, and does it with piles of fun and as much subtlety as a brick going through a bad guy's forehead.