On May 9th 1997, a weird little sci-fi action flick called The Fifth Element was released in theaters, from the same man who had recently brought audiences Nikita and Léon: The Professional. It was widely lauded/derided for being the one of the best/worst science fiction films ever made. It delighted/pissed off everyone who had the chance to see it. It was nominated for prestigious awards/Golden Raspberries, and is regularly cited for how well/terribly it tackled gender themes, design, and humor.
Twenty years later, no one can seem to agree on where it belongs in the pantheon of sci-fi cinema—and it’s safe to say, that is part of its unyielding charm.
Story goes, the general concept for the film was something that director Luc Besson created as a teenager while trying to stave off boredom. Besson would later claim that he saw Star Wars around the same time, and would be inspired to create a film on a similar scale… but that when he finally started making movies, the technology was still too far behind to create the film he wanted to make. After enough advances were made, Besson would work for years to make the movie a reality, obtaining the funding and the talent for it. He hired Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mézières to work on the film’s production design, inspired by their work in comics. He got the legendary designer Jean Paul Gaultier to create every meticulous costume. He talked Gary Oldman into playing Zorg by helping to finance one of Oldman’s other projects after they worked together on Léon. He created a 400-word alien language for Milla Jovovich to learn as Leeloo. He hired an unconventional cast compiled of veteran actors, comedians, musicians, and models.
The Fifth Element is an odd duck because it seems as though any of its more bombastic leanings should cancel one another out, and yet it somehow manages a delirious cohesion. It is loud and dark, funny and frightening, heavy-handed but full of mesmerizing and carefully rendered detail. It is the cinematic equivalent of Rococo artwork, of New Years Eve fireworks, of a gorgeous rainbow cocktail that gives you the worst hangover of your life. It is really no wonder that some people are drawn to it like moths, while others bounce off of it and run the other way.
It is a movie that is full of contradictions as well, perhaps too many to number. It seems to deride reliance on technology and slavish adherence to consumerism—yet many of the vibrant visuals that draw the audience in are resultant from those technologies and objects. It is a story about a woman who was created to save the universe—but she can only manage it if a man will tell her that he loves her. It is a film that extols the average Joe masculinity of men like Bruce Willis—and then counters it with some of the queerest, un-macho, gender-bending male costars that have ever been seen in a blockbuster. It is a tale about the folly of humanity in creating the means of its own destruction—but still relies on the presence of Absolute Evil to bring about total annihilation. These contradictions make it a strange film to critique; focusing on any one of these aspects can result in a massively different reading of the film.
The greatest strength of The Fifth Element is by far its sense of humor, which is something that most big-budget science fiction films never even attempt, much less manage to pull off. The effectiveness of that humor is bolstered by the sharpness of a script that regularly intercuts separate but related conversations with dizzying speed, making flawless editing one of the keys to its success. Everything that the film excels at only plays into the comedy; the lavish surroundings, the clutter, the costumes, the precise soundtrack. The fact that the film is funny also helps to assuage some of the cognitive dissonance for how over-the-top everything is, from Zorg’s tantrums to Mister Shadow’s appearance as a giant ball-of-black-whatever in space to Ruby’s non-stop patter. The way the humor dissipates is entirely centered on Leeloo’s emotional and mental state—when she is frightened or angry or in need of help, the film takes her needs seriously. But darker events that occur around everyone else, events that could be harrowing or disturbing—as when Korben Dallas is held up for money at his own front door by a man who is clearly incredibly high—are always meant to be viewed with a sense of humor.
The giddy design of the film’s locales were purposefully rendered with garishness in mind; Besson was tired of seeing dark, dingy spaceship corridors in science fiction and wanted his film to depict a “cheerfully crazy” glimpse of the future. There is a sense of constant transgression built into the film by repeatedly denying its audience the tropes that they are comfortable with in this way; the future is messy but full of color and warmth; the scientists who reconstruct Leeloo from the Mondoshawan crash keep assuming that someone with such perfect DNA must be male; the main protagonists never meet their main antagonist (Zorg is completely unaware of Korben’s existence and vice versa). The Fifth Element has a familiar mythic structure, but it is tempered by moments of sheer sacrilege in communication of that arc.
At the center of the story is the titular Fifth Element, a character of great polarization among viewers, fans, and critics. There have been countless deconstructions of Leeloo, and she contributes to some honestly aggravating conceits for Strong Female Characters, whether it’s the “silent, ass kicking young woman” who seems to be everywhere these days, or the recently named “Born Sexy Yesterday” problem that plagues many female protagonists. There’s also the fact that she refuses to do her world-saving without confirmation that Bruce Willis loves her, which could strike anyone as a little negligent. (It doesn’t help that we all know she could do better than Dallas, proficiency with spaceships and guns not withstanding.)
But it’s hard to deny that very few female heroes are permitted the range that Leeloo is allowed in such a short span of time; innocence coupled with wisdom, strength alongside immense vulnerability. Most of this is down to Jovovich’s performance, which is captivating from the first frame. She can move from wide-eyed wonder to tears in the space of a moment, and it’s hard to feel as though you’re not being pulled into her orbit the same way Korben is. If the ending of the film seems too corny, it’s easy to believe that the two of them go their separate ways not long after the finale—they don’t really seem like a romance that will outlast the burning of the sun. Leeloo’s desire to learn and grow and experience life is clearly around for the long haul, though.
Many readings of The Fifth Element center on the gender dynamics, either by narrowing in on Leeloo’s simultaneous fulfillment and rejection of certain feminine tropes, or focusing on the interesting mixed signals the film gives off about masculinity. Korben Dallas is like most characters that Bruce Willis has played over the course of his career—sarcastic everymen who offer a sort of updated version of the cowboy archetype, cynical until the right moment comes along and something softens them up. There are critiques of the film that point to the fact that every other man in the story seems entirely incompetent next to Dallas, making his particular brand of manliness seem supernatural by comparison.
But this reading leaves out the proper deference due to radio DJ Ruby Rhod (whose name is either a reference to a periodic table pun, a component of laser design, a cute play on feminine and phallic combinations, or some amalgam of any of these), a role originally designed with Prince in mind before going to comedian Chris Tucker. Rhod is one of the characters who divides audiences and critics, but love or leave him, the film is a completely different animal without his presence. The desire for the character to play around with gender norms was intrinsic from the beginning; figuring that the look might be a hard sell, Besson came prepared with costume sketches for Tucker, showing him variations on the outfits that ended up on camera. When Tucker proved wary, as Besson was expecting, he showed him even more flamboyant costume design options… which led to Tucker accepting the initial drawings as the more mellow option.
It would be easy to say that Ruby is there to make Korben look “cooler” by being the frightened, effeminate counter to Dallas’s rugged machismo. But Rhod is always rendered as sexually appealing to practically all women and to his queer entourage—which still marks him as a powerful person according to traditional tenets of masculinity. He is beloved by countless fans, he has wealth and fame. Moreover, while Ruby spends his initial time with Korben struggling to get the man to say more than a word in reply to his questions, the eventual result of their time at Floston Paradise shows Korben willfully participating in Ruby’s show in order to receive his aid, an inevitable trade as the show is live during the attack on the resort. In short, Ruby Rhod gets exactly what he wants from the situation; the “best show he ever did.”
People can choose to quibble with the character’s construction or depiction, which certainly comes with its own pitfalls and debatable points. But when all is said and done, there has never been a male character in an action-filled blockbuster who was more openly flamboyant, transgressive, and enveloped in queer codification than Ruby Rhod. That filmmakers have been so afraid to emulate that bold choice makes Ruby special, but it’s impossible not to criticize his lonely status in cinema.
Characters and gendered thematic resonance aside, The Fifth Element is a movie that aims to engage as many senses as possible. It is full of slick textures and dimension, practical effects and sets, music that overtakes. If the film were known only for the showstopping “Diva Dance” number, that would be a good enough reason for its legacy—an utterly alien experience with unmistakable visuals and melodies that linger on forever. It makes the most out of what film does best. In that way, it is hardly surprising that Besson was enamored of Star Wars, as George Lucas has always had a similar approach to film: medium first and story second. It doesn’t work for many creators to function this way, but Besson has an incredible knack for making his style into substance, rather than divorcing those two concepts entirely.
Film critic Armond White has said that Besson writes stories that are about “conscientious resistance to human degradation.” The Fifth Element bears out under that observation; many characters are working to aid evil, and many more are doing nothing to stop it, but the film is unerringly optimistic about humanity’s ability to retreat from darkness. While the viewer is encouraged to ask the same questions that Leeloo asks of herself and those around her, to wonder at the value of preserving life when it is full of suffering, the ultimate answer is still one of hope. Zorg may believe in destruction, but Besson has deliberately equipped him with faulty reasoning; in the film, he makes the argument that life is built on chaos, reciting his own version of Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window” without knowing that the old French economist already broke this concept down as a fallacy in the 19th century. Zorg is meant to sound smart and appear competent, but he is mistaken on the most basic level—while even the most inept agents of good are still plugging away at averting the impending disasters of their era.
You could go so far as to say that The Fifth Element believes you do not have to recognize evil in order to fight back against it. You simply have to care enough to get up off your butt and do something. And you can do it in cheesy technicolor and rubber suspenders and three-dimensional traffic. Austerity gets you points as far as the Academy is concerned, but if you want to stick in people’s minds, you have to add in a few blue aliens and weird stones with symbols etched into them. Film is an art form for our eyes and ears, and sometimes that should be rewarded with more than period costumes and sorrowful string sections.
So it’s been twenty years. And The Fifth Element is still the best/worst science fiction film you’ve ever seen. Then again, we’re still talking about it… which means it probably can’t be all bad.