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The Fifth Element Delivers a Stunning Thrill Ride
movie review by Gary Johnson

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  [rating: 3½ of 4 stars]
Every so often a new movie arrives that redefines a genre. In the '60s, 2001 showed the world that science fiction had matured as an art form. In the '70s, Star Wars reclaimed the pulps with state-of-the-art special effects. In the '80s, Blade Runner redefined the future as grungy, overcrowded, and bleak.

Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Company. All rights reserved.)

Now, The Fifth Element takes the oppressive universe of Blade Runner and infuses it with comic book sensibilities and splashes of bright colors, creating an optimistic and fun thrill ride unlike anything you've ever seen before. Plotwise, The Fifth Element doesn't contain a lot that's new. Its story of an evil force hurtling toward Earth is familiar material. Rather, it's the production design itself that impresses. Director Luc Besson, production designer Dan Weil, and visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson have created a stunning vision of the future. They give us mindboggling, multi-tiered traffic in a world of skyscrapers. They give us cloning machines that piece together new human beings in a matter of minutes. They give us a world where race doesn't matter anymore: everyone has an equal claim on the bizarre. They give us a world where the hottest ticket in town is for an opera diva from another universe.

Set in the 23rd century, The Fifth Element eschews the angst of Blade Runner for the comic sensibilities of Batman. In fact, if you're looking for comparisons, The Fifth Element is closer to Batman than any other movie, both in terms of visual design and over-the-top humor. Instead of Jack Nicholson hamming it up as the Joker, we get Gary Oldman chewing the scenery as Zorg, a mighty corporate capitalist who sees war as the ultimate gift to humanity: "By creating a little destruction, I'm creating life," he says, arguing that war creates jobs and thus serves mankind. He has a plate in his head, bulging front teeth like Bugs Bunny, a Southern accent, and a lisp. By design, he's alternately scary and pathetic.

The Diva in
The Fifth Element.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Company. All rights reserved.)

Zorg has somehow discovered the location of four stones that must be used to ward off the advances of a purely evil anti-energy life force that is hurtling through space toward Earth. To maintain chaos in the universe, he wants to make sure those stones, which symbolically represent the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), don't fall into the right hands.

Bruce Willis plays a cab driver named Korben Dallas who is in danger of losing his license. One day a fare literally falls through the roof of his cab and into his back seat. He doesn't understand how she ended up crashing into his cab, but he's immediately smitten. And when the police start ordering him to turn her over . . . well, hey, it's Bruce (Die Hard) Willis. What do you expect? Away he goes. However, he soon finds out that she isn't exactly a run-of-the-mill woman, rather a genetically perfect specimen sent to save Earth.

A street scene from
The Fifth Element.

(©1997 Sony Pictures Entertainment Company. All rights reserved.)

These developments put Willis in the role of the ultimate Die Hard movie hero: now he's saving not just a building, not just an airport, but the entire world. While the story itself is ordinary action movie material, director Luc Besson gives the movie an off-kilter sensibility that makes virtually every scene fresh and exciting. Cars look like souped-up Fisher-Price toys. Stewardesses dress in cleavage revealing uniforms. Benevolent aliens are hulking, armored creatures with tiny mechanical heads. Apartments are 6' by 10' cubicles with showers and refrigerators that slide into the walls. Hot dog vendors drift by open apartment windows. The surface of the Earth is enveloped in a soupy fog. Radio talk show hosts prance like Prince clones. Opera divas have blue skin and strange tubes that sprout from their heads.

The Fifth Element is far from perfect. The plot never makes much sense, we never learn much about the evil force threatening humanity, and Chris Tucker's performance as Ruby Rhod, a strutting radio deejay who speaks in a high-pitched squeal, is one of the most annoying performances ever put on film. He's funny for about 30 seconds, but he hangs around for about half the movie, shrieking and prancing. But even with its flaws, The Fifth Element packs a powerful punch. Director Besson, who also gave us the magnificently brutal La Femme Nikita and the occasionally stunning The Professional, captures the action sequences with a hyperkinetic gusto worthy of Hong Kong director John Woo.

The Fifth Element is one of the most imaginatively-designed science fiction movies ever made. It's an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that mixes liberal doses of sex and comic book sensibilities. It may be a superficial journey, but it's one helluva ride.

Columbia Web site

A Columbia Pictures Presentation


Korben DallasBruce Willis
ZorgGary Oldman
CorneliusIan Holm
LeelooMilla Jovovich
Ruby RhodChris Tucker
BillyLuke Perry
General MunroBrion James
President LindbergTommy "Tiny" Lister Jr.
FogLee Evans
DavidCharlie Creed Miles
Right ArmTricky
General StaedertJohn Neville
DivaMaïwenn Le Besco
Directed byLuc Besson
Produced byPatrice Ledoux
Screenplay byLuc Besson &
Robert Mark Kamen
Story byLuc Besson
Director of PhotographyThierry Arbogast
Production DesignerDan Weil
Music byEric Serra
Costume DesignerJean-Paul Gaultier
EditorSylvie Landra
Visual Effects SupervisorMark Stetson
Co-ProducerIain Smith
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