Ladies and gentlemen and beings of indeterminate provenance! I present to you the MRGN post of a thousand and one follies, jollies and lick ‘em lollies: 1997’s The Fifth Element! Supergreen!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
Probably the best (and most appropriately nostalgic) way to sum up the diversity of reaction to The Fifth Element when it was originally released is what happened the first time I saw it in 1997, 20 years ago. (Jeez.) I went to see it in the theater with my friend Parag, in Austin, Texas. Both of us went in not knowing much more about it than that it was science fiction and starred Bruce Willis. Needless to say, The Fifth Element was nothing at all what either of us had expected.
I was rapt. Parag fell asleep.
One of our favorite things to argue about for the rest of college, thereafter, was why he was so wrong to say the movie was awful, and I was so wrong to say it was awesome. This argument never got anywhere, of course, but that was okay, because “getting somewhere” was never the point of any of our arguments. I miss ya, Parag.
And the thing is, we really should not rag on my friend for hating on The Fifth Element (or, well, not rag on him much) because from a certain point of view it is an awful movie. The plot, for example. To say the plot of this film is “simplistic” is probably an insult to simple things. I mean, the story can literally be summed up as “giant ball of evil comes to destroy the world; giant ball of evil is stopped by the power of love”. I’m all for not over-complicating things, but wow.
It’s also pretty easy to see how the crazed rainbow filling of that Wonderbread plot sandwich could be offputting as well, especially when it crashes into the expectations one may justifiably be harboring about “a science fiction movie starring Bruce Willis”.
Let’s just say, growing up in the 80s and 90s gives you some very definite parameters for what constitutes A Bruce Willis Movie, and other than the gun-heavy mayhem, The Fifth Element fulfills just about none of them.
KATE: The movie puts him in a backless orange ribbed tank top, for Christ’s sake.
LIZ: Didn’t make him any less sexy.
No, no it did not, mostly because there is just about nothing in existence that can lessen that man’s sexy. But the choice to dress Bruce frickin’ Willis, who is right up there with John Wayne in the Quintessential American Rugged Masculinity Sweepstakes, in an outfit that so clearly gives the middle finger to American ideals of what a Rugged Man Hero would wear, signals without doubt that this movie is not even remotely interested in catering to the expectations that the largely American-dominated action/sci-fi movie genre has ingrained in us all. Jean Paul Gaultier is a gift to humanity for this costuming decision alone, let alone all the others.
The presence of Bruce Willis (and an entire cast of largely non-French actors) does just about zilch to mitigate how intensely, screamingly French The Fifth Element is. Even Bruce Willis himself seems baffled by the sheer Frenchness he is surrounded by, and I have to confess one of my favorite things about this movie is how Willis wanders through it with a bemused WTF look on his face pretty much the entire time. It is hilarious.
Basically The Fifth Element is so French, I am surprised that you couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower from every spaceship window. And that’s something that you’re either going to find awful, or find awesome.
I thought it was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen. And my sisters agree.
I just don’t think a big-budget sci-fi action American film in the 1990s (hell, an American action movie now) would ever have dared to have characters so blatantly eccentric, to have costumes so boldly outré (French, y’all!), to be not just willing to subvert sexual and gender norms but to be downright gleeful about bouncing up to those norms and smacking them in the face with a feather boa. The latter being best exemplified, of course, by the incomparable Ruby Rhod.
I admit that I was… nonplussed with Chris Tucker’s character, the first time I saw this. I had never seen anything like him at the time; 1997 was a long time before queer or non-gender conforming characters became a common sight in American entertainment, and therefore I had very little context for him available to me – and most of the context I did have was unflattering, at best. Ruby made me uncomfortable, for reasons I understood, but only inarticulately. But once I did reach greater clarity on those reasons, I realized that Ruby Rhod was one of the most brilliantly subversive characters to ever appear in mainstream cinema, and I have adored him ever since.
On the surface, Ruby appears to be just outrageous (verging-on-obnoxious) comic relief, and he certainly is that, but the underlying implications of his character are much more subtle, and they get more amazing the longer you think about them. He is the essence of the term “genderqueer”, in a time when that concept barely existed in the mainstream consciousness (much less was accepted by it). Other than that he is definitely referred to with the male pronoun, Ruby rejects conformity to either male or female traditional gender markers with palpable contempt. But the most amazing thing about him is that he receives no censure for this. His demeanor and style is not only accepted without question by the other characters, he is in fact galactically famous for it, and apparently is one of the biggest celebrities of the time. Think about that for a minute.
None of the humor he is the target of is related to his queerness, either. This is harder to explain, because certainly we all laughed at his histrionics –
LIZ: THAT SCREAM WAS THE BEST SCREAM
– (true), which could be viewed as mockery for his effeminate mannerisms, but somehow it didn’t feel like that’s why we were laughing. I dunno, maybe someone else could explain it better than me. Or maybe I’m wrong. But even if I am, Ruby’s mere existence demonstrated a far bolder willingness to imagine how the future will be truly different than the past than any amount of flying cars or spaceships ever would.
LIZ & KATE: Leeloo Dallas Multipass!
We also have to talk about Leeloo, of course. The internet tells me that Leeloo was originally supposed to have been played by Julia Roberts (and Korben was supposed to be Mel Gibson, eek), which means that Fifth Element fans dodged the world’s biggest miscasting bullet. I am not a Julia Roberts hater, particularly, but there is no way in the world that she could have made this character work the way Milla Jovovich did. Milla, for all her tiny beauty, has an undercurrent of feral wildness that has made every role I’ve ever seen her in unforgettable, and she is utterly convincing in any ass-kicking context.
Leeloo’s ass-kickingness was not quite the revelation Ruby Rhod’s character was (female action heroes may have been relatively sparse overall compared to their male counterparts, but it certainly wasn’t a new idea), and it was a little annoying that apparently even in the future unconscious gender assumptions are still the norm (evidenced by the played-for-laughs revelation of the body-rebuilding scene, where everyone is pruriently amazed that the Supreme Being is a chick), but nevertheless I enjoyed the hell out of Leeloo and her cheerfully odd mix of naiveté and wisdom.
The argument can certainly be made (and it has been) that the film both damsels and infantilizes her, but I don’t necessarily agree. The film was trying to make the point that Leeloo was both strong and fragile, and needed support as well as freedom, and that’s something I can get behind, as a rejection of the toxic masculinity trope that true heroes are entirely self-sufficient loners who can do anything and never need help. Leeloo may not take the prize for the most feminist representation of an action heroine ever, but she was a better attempt at it than many of her fictional peers.
KATE: What I don’t understand is, if the Mondashawans were planning to bring her to Earth all along, why wasn’t Leeloo educated in our language and history and stuff beforehand?
LIZ: Because she was still in the coffin thingy.
KATE: Nuh-uh, the gauntlet they rebuilt her from was holding a throttle from the ship!
We soon realized, though, after seeing a shot of the case delivered to Zorg that shows one of the handles torn off, that the gauntlet must have been holding the stones case, not operating the ship. So she’d been asleep all this time. Which makes sense as long as you don’t think about it too closely.
LIZ: More sense than why a planet-sized ball of evil would communicate with its henchmen via AT&T, anyway.
KATE: Or why that would make you leak black goo from your forehead.
LIZ: I thought that was blood.
KATE: That doesn’t make any sense either!
ME: Guys, don’t look at the plot. Turn away from the plot, please.
Fun fact: the hero and the villain of TFE (Willis and Oldman, respectively) not only never interact with each other, neither one is ever even aware of the existence of the other. I don’t know if that also counts as a plot flaw or not, but it is certainly interesting to think about re: story structure.
Also, the diva scene.
This scene is ridiculous. It was ridiculous then, and it is even more ridiculous now, with the very 90s electronica dating it. I do not care in the slightest, and it remains one of my favorite things ever. I still get chills every time I watch it. Fight me.
Another fun fact: the aria the Diva sings is generally considered to be one of the most difficult in opera, and the techno part is designed to be actually impossible to perform by a human. This has since proven, amazingly, to not be true. Wow.
Also, Luke Perry is in this movie for some reason.
LIZ: Tiny machine gun! It’s adorable! Is that a Luger?
ME: I… have no idea?
LIZ: I’m going to be so impressed if I got that right.
(She was not right, though her choice would have been a lot more historically accurate, since Lugers were actually around in 1914. Turns out Perry’s gun was a Mauser M712 Schnellfeuer, and counts as an anachronism, because it didn’t exist until the 1930s. Oh well.)
Luke Perry aside, though, the reason this movie worked is because of – well, many things, but mostly (in my opinion) that its actors had the talent and the courage to commit to its general insanity. Gary Oldman may not have understood exactly why he was wearing Tupperware on his head while being cartoonishly evil, and Chris Tucker may or may not have really believed that Ruby Rhod could be an intergalactic superstar, but they committed to those characters being those things. Everyone in the cast, even Willis, played the shit out of their characters, and that’s why everything else worked.
If you want a demonstration of how vital that commitment and talent is to making something like The Fifth Element work, look no further than Luc Besson’s failed attempt to recreate it, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – or rather, don’t bother. Emmet Asher-Perrin explains why with wonderful accuracy, but for my own part I’ll just say my time and money would have been much better spent going to see Wonder Woman again. Shame.
That said, Besson’s more recent failures do not mitigate my love for his earlier successes, of which The Fifth Element is by far and away my and my sisters’ favorite of his films. No matter how many times I see it, I can always watch it again. The Fifth Element was spectacle, it was fashion, it was absurdity, it was bright colors and strange French humor and unashamed audacity. Even twenty years later, it is unique, and likely always will be.
And now, our patented MRGN Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
And that’s all, folks! FOR NOW. Come back for more soon!