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The Fifth Element, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, directed by Luc Besson, 1997, 125 min.

Today's commercialized system of moviemaking has an uneasy relationship with the visionary artist, much as it ever did, but especially since special effects have become so expensive and so integral to the pursuit of profit. The best way to maximize that profit is as simple as making a movie that the public wants to see; the safe way of doing that is to imitate something that is already successful or to make a sequel. But sequels generally make less money than the originals, so Hollywood is constantly torn between two competing impulses: to create something new and stunning, and, what happens more often, to follow in the footsteps of an established moneymaker. Somebody has to be the one to break new ground but that's a risky business. This leads inevitably to studio interference with the projects of directors who seem to be forgetting the business side of the equation (one such story about Terry Gilliam's Brazil can be found in great detail in Jack Mathew's Battle of Brazil). Luc Besson, the prime motivator behind the movie under discussion here, The Fifth Element, has faced his own share of disruptions and intrusions. His movie Leon was trimmed radically and retitled The Professional in the North American market without his consent. Big Blue also had problems getting released according to his own vision (although those who have seen the Director's Cut on DVD might agree with me that the shorter version might have been better). So, in a case where he got a big budget and the freedom to do exactly as he pleased, shouldn't that be a good thing? This is what happened with The Fifth Element, and I was cheering for him. Until I saw the movie.

The Fifth Element begins with a prologue in Egypt in 1914. A professor makes a discovery inside an ancient stone monument; the inscriptions indicate that there is a recurring battle between good and evil, and those on the side of good need to have four elements coming together with a fifth to create a weapon. Some weird aliens named the Mondoshawans show up and take away the four stones, and leave behind a key for an order of priests to guard.

Cut to the 23rd century. The military is investigating a strange threat in outer space: it looks like a giant planet or ball of fire, and it can't be destroyed by any of the weapons that are used against it. Back on Earth, in New York City, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) wakes up and starts his day as a taxi driver. Life has gotten hard for him since leaving the military six months ago and he only has six points left on his license. In the meantime, the Mondoshawans from the prologue are on their way to Earth to return the four stones but their ship gets blown up; a group of scientists clone cells remaining from the crash, to create (as happens in these kinds of stories) a half naked lady. She promptly escapes and crash-lands in Korben's taxi. Her name is Leeloo and Korben brings her to the order of priests who are supposed to know what to do with her claims to be the Supreme Being or the Fifth Element.

After this point, the plot complications proliferate and the plot logic slowly drains away. It seems that the human named Zorg is collaborating with the giant ball of fiery evil, even though there isn't much for him in the deal (the giant ball wants to exterminate all life). Zorg was using an ugly race of warlike aliens named the Mangalores to achieve his goals, but they turn on him after being doublecrossed. Meanwhile, the stones are not at the Mondoshawan crash site, and suddenly everyone knows that the stones are at Fhloston Paradise, one of the galaxy's top vacation spots. All of the plot threads converge on Fhloston, as well as two new characters: Ruby Rhod, a flamboyant radio show host, and the Diva Plavalaguna, an alien singing sensation. Will Korben and company fight off the giant ball of evil in time? And how does the Fifth Element fit into all this?

I've described a fairly silly space-opera or comic-book plot, and one of the lesser examples of such, to give due recognition to people who have created impressive works of art in these genres. The Fifth Element is probably too ambitious for its own good, stretching itself wildly, ambitiously inconsistently. In particular, the moments of humour, such as they are, detract from the momentum of the rest of the story. It seems to be the case that the only thing harder to manage than a competent adventure/spectacle plot is one that also adds some laughs. This movie ventures too close to self-parody for the overall story to gel together. In contrast to the plot messiness, it's the eclecticism of design that appealed most to me on second viewing many years later. The costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier and the overall visual design contribute to the sense of the future as a place that's fairly post-modern, fractured identities adrift on a sea of meaning/meaninglessness, signifiers with no signified. This is probably how Besson intended the character of Ruby Rhod to fit in, a gesture in the direction of metrosexual (before the word existed) but fitting more squarely into camp and stereotype. Again, this is an aspect of the movie that could be just as easily chalked up to an accident -- Besson randomly threw some attributes into the catch-all of Ruby Rhod's character -- than a carefully thought-out plan.

The characters in the movie probably suffer the most from Besson's eclectic approach to a plot-heavy narrative. The ultimate villain is a flying ball of evil! It's tough to portray malevolence on such a cosmic scale, without confusing people as to motivation -- the recent adaptations of The Lord of the Rings faced a similar problem and got around it by having more understandable minions also fighting for evil. As I've mentioned, the human collaborator in this story, Zorg, doesn't seem to have much to gain from his actions. How could he rationalize his actions to himself (as any credible villain does)? The Leeloo character is stock issue, the half-clothed model who has to carry the plot (and if she was injured or killed, couldn't the scientists just clone her again?). Korben Dallas, as played by Bruce Willis, was not terribly interesting, but performed his function as the typical cipher at the heart of any action-oriented plot. Surprisingly, one of my favourite moments in the movie was a bit of acting on the part of Willis. The look on his face as he was watching the Diva sing struck me for some reason, and I don't know why. But his appreciation of the beauty, of music and of the human form, as centred in the Diva (ironically, non-human in form and singing abilities), really moved me. An effective scene.

The Fifth Element has a bright and cheerful visual design, which doesn't happen very often in science fiction movies. All too often, genre movies recycle the dark and scary future of Alien or the dark and rainy future of Blade Runner (both directed by Ridley Scott, by the way). In The Fifth Element, the colour of choice seems to be bright orange, either in accent or as dominant, and many scenes are set in bright sunshine. The special effects that cost Besson so much money are often obvious CGI, and not always convincing. The lack of realism in such things as city design was likely on purpose, more of a cartoon of the future than serious extrapolation of current trends. Sometimes this approach works (I liked the food vendor flying to Korben's window) and sometimes it doesn't, such as the cheesy ending.

See my separate review of soundtrack of The Fifth Element for why I think the music is an interesting failure with one moment of brilliance.

The Fifth Element is a movie I admire more in retrospect than during the experience of actually watching it. It's recommended to fans of more outlandish science fiction on film but it's not an unqualified success in its own right.

DVD Note: The Fifth Element was one of the first DVDs released back in the days of the format's infancy. That edition lacked special features, as did the subsequent Superbit edition (a series which is dedicated to increasing the visual and audio quality at the expense of anything else). Five years later, a Special Edition was released, complete with 2 DVDs, several commentary tracks, and many background documentaries. The Fifth Element is a visually stunning demonstration of what the DVD format can do, and it's nice to have a proper edition of the movie.

First posted: October 31, 1997; Last modified: February 18, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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