The more I think about The Fifth Element, the more I realize it’s a movie that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. It’s such a pastiche of different influences, from Blade Runner to Chris Foss to Akira to Star Wars to The Incal (so much so that Jodorowsky sued The Fifth Element writer/director Luc Besson for plagiarism). Yet never, to me, does The Fifth Element feel like a rip-off, or a second-rate version of something greater. Because while the movie wears its influences on its sleeve—with joyful exuberance, in fact—it also subverts every single one of them by refusing to take itself seriously. It’s like Besson took a sample of sci-fi’s greatest hits, put them all in a blender and hit frappe—while maniacally laughing the entire time.
The story is pretty simple: the ultimate evil is coming, and only the ultimate good can stop it. Chosen one/messiah narratives are nothing new to sci-fi. In the case of The Fifth Element, the chosen one is Leeloo (played to perfection by Milla Jovovich), an alien clone who literally crashes into Korben Dallas’ (Bruce Willis) cab, kicking off an intergalactic adventure to prevent the apocalypse. There’s some cool twists along the way—Besson especially excels at layering his characters’ stories so that they all converge, hilariously, at the same point—but it all comes down to a fairly standard race against the clock. Leeloo and Korben, aided by a priest played by the always terrific Ian Holm, have to get their hands on a set of elemental stones before the evil Zorg (a role only an actor like Gary Oldman could have made so entertaining) can deliver them to Mister Shadow.
When I say The Fifth Element shouldn’t work as well as it does, it’s because it’s so easy to imagine all the ways the movie could have failed. It could have been a tonal mess; it could have felt too much like any number of familiar sci-fi works; it could have been smothered by its own aesthetic. But it’s not. The Fifth Element thoroughly works, on every level, and twenty years later it feels as fresh and as fun as ever.
Besson claims that he thought of the story for The Fifth Element when he was a kid, which means it would have predated most of its own influences. That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is how Besson’s inspiration translates to what we see on the screen—and what we see is nothing short of breathtaking. From start to finish, every stitch of Besson’s 23rd-century galaxy is fully realized and wild with unique imagination. The detail behind the ship designs, the aliens—particularly the Mondoshawans—and the cityscapes are all embodiments of what Besson does so well throughout the entire movie: he takes something familiar and makes it his own in the best way possible.
With the help of a team of distinguished comic book artists (including Jean-Claude Mezieres, whose series, Valerian, is being adapted by Besson this summer), Besson created a futuristic world that, visually, never relents. And that relentlessness is true to Besson’s filmmaking at its best, after all. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and, most recently, Lucy, are all hyper-exaggerated versions of their genre molds (two hitman thrillers and a techno thriller, respectively). Lucy, especially, is a great example of Besson’s greatest strengths—like The Fifth Element, unpacking the reasons and explanations behind why things are, or why they happen, matters much less than the comprehensive experience. As an experience, there’s very few things that can match The Fifth Element’s visual feast and its unbridled lunacy.
There’s no less than a half dozen shots in The Fifth Element that can easily be considered iconic: Leeloo’s first encounter with the dizzying New York landscape, Korben surrounded at gunpoint by the Mangalores, and so on. While the plot that carries Besson’s visual along is somewhat pedestrian, the film is buttressed by a tone that is completely its own. With a deft hand, Besson knows how to effectively capture the over-the-top performances while never losing sight of the story’s actual stakes. For as silly as the movie gets, you never forget the danger, to both the galaxy and the characters. The Fifth Element perfectly balances the zaniness it lovingly embraces while keeping viewers engaged in the story, characters, and world it presents.
And of course, let’s not forget Chris Tucker’s wacky and inspired performance, Gary Oldman’s speech about chaos, and the simple fact that Brion James has a meaty role in the movie.
While The Fifth Element was a commercial success, a sequel never happened, which is unusual—especially viewed through our contemporary lens of Hollywood’s determination to make franchises out of everything. Besson, from what he’s said, wasn’t interested in more; he told his story, and that’s all there is to it. Still, fans of the movie—like myself—have always clamored for more. With that in mind, here’s to hoping Besson pulls off the same feats he accomplished in The Fifth Element with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, releasing this summer. If the trailer’s any indication, his wild imagination is fully at work—it might just be the next best thing to The Fifth Element sequel we’ve always wanted.
Michael Moreci is a comics writer and novelist best known for his sci-fi trilogy Roche Limit. He’s also a Star Wars obsessive, who is lucky to spend his time playing Star Wars action figures with his two sons by day and writing Star Wars-inspired stories by night. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelMoreci.