‘The Fifth Element’ revisited

While watching Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” again, I suddenly remembered the first time I saw it.

I was still in high school, in the summer between 9th and 10th grade. None of us could drive yet, but some friends (Julie, Kristen and Erica) and I planned to meet at the theater that was just down the road (and across a highway) from my house. After playing a human version of “Frogger” across four lanes of traffic (not recommended), I met up with them.

We were giggly and too loud during the wait, and I have no idea what I thought of the movie after watching with them, but that memory of that day is enough for me to give the movie a bit of a break.

And boy, does it need one.

“The Fifth Element” turns out to be Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a supreme being sent to protect the universe from ultimate evil (this time around, it’s a hulking planet-shaped mass that grows when it’s attacked). If she’s taken to this special pyramid on Earth, and the stones of the other elements lined up, the power can destroy the darkness for another 5,000 years.

The plot is straight out of a comic book (Besson wrote the initial script when he was a teenager), and the film has that goofy spirit and the visual panache of its print brethren. Besson has this way of using extreme close-ups for maximum effect (an early shot of a doomed soldier’s face is one breathtaking example) while also knowing how to make whiz-bang visual effects (explosions, chase scenes) exciting and fresh.

He also makes pretty good casting decisions. Bruce Willis (as Korben Dallas, the hero of the show) plays a more humorous version of John McClane from “Die Hard,” and his habit of underplaying jokes really, really works in this oversaturated and busy environment. Ian Holm, as a priest called to protect Leeloo and by extension the universe, and Gary Oldman, as the toady of the giant ball of evil, also stand out in their roles, bringing extra touches to rather stock characters. And Chris Tucker is the highlight of the show as the obnoxious and spazzy (and hilarious) radio show host Ruby Rhod.

Yeah, the film gets a lot right but… (really, you had to know that was coming).

What really bugs me here is Leeloo.  Jovovich does the best she can with a character who is meant to be perfect (how do you play that?), but the role is so underwritten her efforts don’t amount to much. Leeloo is perfect – she’s beautiful, a fighter, all good, etc.

She’s supposed to be humanity’s great savior, but really, she spends the majority of the film being carried places by the big strong men around her. When her big moment comes, all she does is basically lie there.

And that’s where the downside of the comic book stylings come in; our heroine is a passive little woman who needs protection and rescue and is a teenage boy’s fantasy girl. She may be the best use of science fiction going on here.

It’s not a small complaint, but really, I can’t hate this movie. Despite my misgivings, it really is a lot of fun, just like that summer day was.

“The Fifth Element” (1997)

Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

Directed by Luc Besson

Starring: Bruce Willis (Korben Dallas)

Gary Oldman (Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg)

Ian Holm (Father Vito Cornelius)

Milla Jovovich (Leeloo )

Chris Tucker (Ruby Rhod)