In an industry increasingly devaluing its true artists in proportion to their box office bankability, director, Luc Besson continues to illustrate the feasibility of being commissioned to create works that inspire and ignite the screen with their trail-blazing originality, and still, effectively, make a buck for the money men who can only see the art and craft of making movies in terms of dividends returned. Case in point: The Fifth Element (1997), a cinematic spellbinder’s guide to the universe, circa 2263. The sheer joy in revisiting this vintage piece of intergalactic escapism, it has lost none of its deliciously exotic appeal as a rainbow-hued bonbon space adventure; the antithesis of all our more recent dystopian and monochromatically bleached re-envisions of a very joyless, bloodless, and, decidedly dour futurism. The Fifth Element is quite unlike any projection into the untold millennia the movies have dared to be brave enough to create: even Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), perceived the burgeoning epochs as strangely absent of the earth’s presence as a point of reference. But Besson’s screenplay for The Fifth Element (co-authored with Robert Mark Kamen) has all the interstellar charm of Star Wars, with its weird and wonderful mutants and alien life forces doing battle to preserve the delicate balance, while maintaining mankind’s relevancy within this delicate interplanetary ecosphere. Sandwiched somewhere between the benevolent Mondoshawans and the maniacal Mangolores is modern (or rather postmodern) man – uninformed, arguably unafraid, and still bungling his way through life’s eternal why?; our hero, Korben Dallas (played with luxuriating cynicism by Bruce Willis) about as clueless as heroic figures in science fiction get: just a Manhattan cabbie with above average intelligence, navigating the elevated byways and highways of a New York skyline that is both adventurously new age, even as it has retained an air of 1940’s skyscraper engineering for which New York has justly, and eternally, become famous.
Few in the biz could have conceived of The Fifth Element’s enduring popularity, or Luc Besson, who, having already broken out to critical acclaim in North America with back to back hits, La Femme Nikita (1993) and Leon: The Professional (1994) would suddenly retreat from such notoriety for nearly three years to pursue this passion project. But Besson, a devotee of France’s Bandes Dessinees (comic books), quickly exported his newfound international cache to the cause of hiring France’s foremost graphic artists; Jean-Claude Mezieres and Jean Giraud; the latter, famously known in the comic book industry as Moebius. In their native France, Mezieres and Moebius are legendary figures of pop art; their lifelong friendship forged while aspiring artists attending art school together back in the 1950’s. Upon graduation, their paths diverged; Mezieres departing for America to shadow another lifelong dream – to become a cowboy. In the interim, Moebius practically reinvented France’s comic book industry with Blueberry; ironically, a 1963 graphic novel following the exploits of a solitary cowboy. Upon his return to France, Mezieres created his own lucrative series – Valerian – about as futuristic and far removed from the dusty mesas and plains he had known in the U.S. But it would be Mezieres and Moebius’ joint creation, Metal Hurlant (a.k.a. Heavy Metal) that would launch them to international acclaim. Ultimately, Besson regarded both men as cutting edge visionaries, ideal to envision the interplanetary landscapes he had been brainstorming for more than twenty years for The Fifth Element.
Begun under the working title, Zoltman Bleros, The Fifth Element’s pre-production phase corralled some of France’s most influential and rising stars in the comic book industry, including Patrice Garcia; the enclave rigorously toiling long hours, six days a week, under the creative aegis of Mezieres and Moebius. The initial concept begun in 1992 was focused on a butch aeronautic engineer and ex-jet pilot, Zoltman Bleros and his exploits hunting hostile aliens in his spare time. While some design elements would be retained from this initial concept, The Fifth Element would evolve almost as though by kismet, while others – like Garcia’s creation of the fictional luxury liner, Flouston Paradise – an ever-clever, uber-rich and ultra-chichi retreat, home to a thousand and one ‘follies, dollies and lick ‘em lollies’ – would take nearly five full years to envision and refine from first draft sketches to finished product. In the middle of all this burgeoning creativity, the money suddenly ran out, forcing Besson to regroup. The release and success of Leon: The Professional convinced Hollywood’s money men to fund Besson’s project; Besson going after some of the biggest guns behind the scenes to push The Fifth Element into its next design phase; concretely visualizing Mezieres and Moebius’ designs in a three dimensional space. Noted model maker, Niels Nielsen was brought in to construct a towering facsimile of futuristic Manhattan on soundstages at Britain’s Pinewood Studios; filling one cavernous soundstage, 70 feet deep and 140 feet wide, with gargantuan ‘miniatures’ ranging from ten to twenty-two feet in height. Meanwhile, Besson turned to renowned fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier to create the film’s haute couture; Gaultier’s vision of 4014, nothing short of provocative, gaudy, occasionally elegant, marginally simplistic, yet frequently ceremonial. In hindsight, the parade of clothes featured in The Fifth Element is one of its most fondly recalled aspects. Who can forget Ruby Rhod’s (Chris Tucker) sleek-fitting leopard print pantsuit, or LeeLoo’s (Milla Jovavich) white-strapped ensemble, seemingly willed in the hyper-cell rejuvenation chamber via a series of harness restraints?
As production continued, other leaders in their field were brought in to augment and complement the efforts and strides already achieved: Bill Neil, as Supervising Editor, responsible for preparing and staging Korben Dallas’ harrowing cab race to escape the police; using a full-size mockup of the floating vehicle, mounted on a gimbal, capable of being rotated 360 degrees. Gary Pollard, model designer extraordinaire, was entrusted with the creation of the villainous Mangelores – fifty, all told; brought to life using a complex system of motorized puppetry, audio-animatronics, and delicate latex applications fitted onto a group of muscled up bodybuilders and nightclub bouncers, expressly hired for their physiques to portray this disturbing foe. The elliptical designs of the Mondoshawan were handed over to Nick Dudman and Monique Brown; the pair hiring nine actors at a prepossessing height of nearly 7 ft.; then, outfitting them in an intricately designed harness and cage. Atop this skeletal structure, Dudman, Brown and their team built a latex shell, convincingly painted to resemble metal and mounted with video monitors inside, as there was no other way for the actors manipulating these very hot and claustrophobic suits to see what was happening outside.
For the pivotal part of Plavalaguna, ‘the diva’ – a horn-headed operatic entertainer, outfitted with long tubular tresses and a majestic blue body-hugging gown of latex, Luc Besson had first envisioned his fiancée, Maïwenn, then an aspiring actress. Alas, false modesty seemed to prevail, as Maïwenn declined the part, forcing Besson to look elsewhere for his inspiration. Indeed, Besson had settled on a German supermodel in her stead, exceedingly pleased with this decision until the newbee failed to show up on her first day for rehearsals and fittings. In the days that followed, Besson would try in vain to reconnect with his star, only to mysteriously discover neither she nor her agent was accepting his calls. Forced into an impossible deadline, Besson turned once more to Maïwenn, who this time willingly agreed to help her lover out of his stalemate. In preparing for the part, Maïwenn had to learn how to convincingly project as an opera singer, despite the fact her vocals for the breathtaking Aria of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ would later be dubbed by soprano, Inva Mulla Tchako. A little disenchanted upon discovering Besson had intercut her performance inside Fhloston Paradise’s theater, with an action sequence depicting LeeLoo disarming the Mangalores, Maïwenn was nevertheless startled when her contributions to The Fifth Element became one of the most readily recognized and celebrated by fans, despite appearing on camera in her full regalia for less than ten minutes.
The Fifth Element begins with a truly haunting prologue set in 1914; archaeologist, Professor Massimo Pacoli (John Bluthal) and his rather laid-back assistant, Billy Masterson (Luke Perry) investigate the ancient hieroglyphics of an Egyptian temple. Pacoli has slowly begun to decipher a secret etched into these stone walls; depicting a ‘fifth’ element, presumably meant to save the world. The excavation is momentarily halted by the appearance of a local priest (John Bennett), who has secretly decided to poison the Prof. drinking water, thus preventing him from unearthing the rest of these mysterious secrets. Alas, Pacoli suggests a toast with Grappa to celebrate his discovery. But before they can rejoice, the temple is visited by a contingent of the Mondoshawans; benevolent protectors of the galaxy, come to collect the four elemental stones, representing ‘earth’, ‘wind’, ‘fire’ and ‘water’, hidden in a secret passage inside the temple. Unfortunately, Pacoli must be sacrificed. He knows too much. The Mondoshawan take the stones from the hidden passage, also removing a sarcophagus from the center of its chamber, containing the mysterious ‘fifth’ element. Masterson seals the fate of one of the Mondoshawan, who nevertheless manages to instruct the priest to impart his knowledge about the looming day of the apocalypse, passing along a secret ‘key’ to this hidden chamber before being crushed between its walls.
Fast track to 2263; the 5,000 year old curse predicted so very long ago is fast approaching. Lindberg (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister Jr.), the President of the Federated Territories, is faced with the crisis of an advancing planetoid that appears on a collision course with the earth. During a conference, Lindberg instructs General Staedert (John Neville) to fire upon the demonic mass, despite the strenuous objections of Father Vito Cornelius (Iam Holm); the latest priest entrusted with the Mondoshawan’s secret. Cornelius endeavors to explain the colossus in space is pure evil. It cannot be destroyed by any earthly means or implements of war, as ‘evil begets evil’. Not heeding this advice, Staedert repeatedly fires missiles into the globular mass and shortly thereafter, he and his entire fleet are consumed by it. Meanwhile, a Mondoshawan ship on a peaceful mission requests the force fields surrounding the earth be lifted so their spacecraft may return. On Cornelius’ advice, President Lindberg complies. Tragically, the vessel comes under siege from a pair of Mangalorian star fighters and is quickly blown up. However, all is not lost. The retrieval of a gloved hand with cells still alive inside it is inserted into one of the hyper-cell rejuvenating chambers as Gen. Munro (Brion James) and several of the government’s top scientists look on. The machine recreates LeeLoo from this dying molecular structure; the girl speaking in foreign tongues, undiscernible by Munro or his staff.
Ambitiously, she escapes from the chamber after knocking the wind out of Munro, crawling through the duct work and eventually winding up on a ledge high above the city of Manhattan; a bustling and congested metropolis, complete with flying cars and vertical subway systems. Leaping, presumably to her death, Leeloo plummets through the roof of Korben Dallas’ taxi. Poor Dallas – he cannot afford another accident on his already severely blemished driving record. Surrounded by several police cruisers and ordered to relinquish his fare, Dallas instead takes pity on LeeLoo’s pleas for help. After a harrowing chase through the bustling streets, Dallas manages to hide out in the fog-laden, boggy bowels of the city. He is directed by LeeLoo to seek out Cornelius; who, at first, shuns the pair as clumsy newlyweds, but then realizes LeeLoo is the fifth element earth has been waiting for these many thousand years. Ushering Dallas off while he and his assistant, David (Charlie Creed-Miles) take charge of LeeLoo’s counsel, Cornelius is momentarily kidnapped and taken to the penthouse retreat of Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman); an effete arms smuggler, working in cahoots with the Mangalores to achieve world domination.
Zorg orders Cornelius to divulge the whereabouts of LeeLoo, something he absolutely refuses to do. Zorg, who momentarily begins to choke on a cherry pit, is saved from suffocation by Cornelius; Zorg, in turn, sparing Cornelius’ life, though ever as determined to conquer the planet because he believes the Mangalores will entrust him with the authoritarian rule of the earth as their principality. In the meantime, Gen. Munro rigs a TV raffle. Korben wins the coveted prize of a vacation to Fhloston Paradise; a grandiose intergalactic luxury liner hovering over the waters. Korben, who is ex-military, is ordered to seek out Plavalaguna, an operatic diva, and retrieve the four stone tablets presently traveling with her before Zorg can do the same. Arriving aboard Fhloston Paradise with LeeLoo masquerading as his wife, Korben places LeeLoo in the relative safety of his cabin while he attends the diva’s concert, accompanied by the raffle’s radio DJ; the uber-flamboyant and self-important lady’s man, Ruby Rhod, who wastes no time exploiting Dallas for his sex-appeal, despite Dallas’ repeated attempts to minimalize his presence on the show. After Zorg fails to plant a dupe Korben Dallas on Fhloston’s itinerary, he instead fakes trouble with his own advancing space craft, requesting emergency docking aboard the Fhloston to make repairs. Actually, Zorg has brought a contingent of Mangalores with him; storming the Fhloston, murdering its crew and assassinating the diva immediately following her performance.
As the terrorized attendees flee in all directions, the dying diva instructs Korben to remove the sacred stones from the gaping wound in her stomach. Mortally stricken, the Fhloston begins to list badly, forcing everyone to escape into its pod-craft lifeboats. Having thwarted an attack from the Mangalore in the diva’s stateroom, LeeLoo joins Dallas and Ruby Rhod aboard Zorg’s space ship; Zorg, already having planted a time bomb on board the Fhloston, now is unable to escape the liner before it detonates. Korben, Ruby and LeeLoo are reunited with Cornelius and David back on earth; the quintet racing against time to the ancient Egyptian temple to reinstate the sacred stones, releasing their energies through the fifth element, in order to destroy the evil orb fast approaching the earth. While President Lindberg and Gen. Munro helplessly await news from their command post, Korben manages to muster enough confidence to help LeeLoo sustain the awe-inspiring kinetic energies flowing from these elements, through her body and into outer space. The power of the stones is successful at stopping the orb’s impact with the earth; its monolithic evil solidified into a harmless mass, destined to orbit the earth as a second moon for all eternity. Dallas and LeeLoo are placed in the hyer-cell rejuvenation chamber to restore their bodies; Munro caught off guard when he discovers the two are making passionate love inside the chamber, moments before a press conference is about to take place.
The Fifth Element is an exuberant tongue-in-cheek adventure. In hindsight, it owes far more to the light-hearted comic book adventures of its creators than Hollywood’s increasingly mundane and gloomy sci-fi pseudo-epics. There is an inimitable joie de vivre to this exercise; lyrically realized by Milla Jovavich; then barely nineteen years old. Although Jovavich had appeared in several movies prior to her work in The Fifth Element, herein she emerges as a strangely exotic creature all her own. Interestingly, Jovavich’s initial meeting with Besson failed to ignite a spark of interest. It was only after a second impromptu meeting between the two that Besson became interested – and this, after more than 400 applicants for the part had been considered. It is difficult to classify what Jovavich does in this movie as ‘a performance’ and yet she undeniably acquits herself of this star-making role, rather convincingly espousing a gibberish-inspired language (derived from French, English, Italian and German extraction, reassembled and phonetically rewritten by Besson, who rehearsed Jovavich in these awkward sentence structures). There is more to LeeLoo than her battered and careworn sex appeal; Besson ordering Jovavich’s dark brown tresses and eyebrows dramatically peroxided, then highlighted in a Raggedy-Anne clementine orange. Alas, this intense color caused Jovavich’s hair to fall out in chunks, forcing Besson to improvise an elaborate wig, worn by Jovavich midway through the production.
The Fifth Element is immeasurably blessed with some very fine performances throughout; Bruce Willis’ weather-beaten cabbie, mildly condescending, yet exceedingly charming as the cool-headed mercenary of the piece – his Korben Dallas, the linchpin to make everything else in the movie click as it should. The most ostentatious incarnation is Chris Tucker, as the exceedingly short-fused and gaudily articulate DJ, Ruby Rhod. Tucker’s frenetic, mad-eyed and angular gesticulations are hilarious; Tucker reportedly drawing his inspiration from pop singers, Prince and Michael Jackson. Ruby Rhod is more than just amusing or silly - even flamboyant; perhaps, most miraculous of all: Tucker infusing genuineness and heart into what could so easily have – and occasionally does – become a grotesque caricature of the self-important celebrity. Gary Oldman, a veritable chameleon of the screen, herein transforms himself into the affluent redneck arms dealer and daydreamer, Zorg, employing a stiff-lipped Southern accent with a glowering and rigid sense of perpetual frustration for having been born a fine-boned ‘short man’ surrounded by the infinitely more butch Mangalores.
But perhaps the most brilliant aspect of The Fifth Element is its screenplay; exceptionally tight and featuring plausibly ‘implausible’ moments giving each star their moments to shine. A good movie either rises or falls on the basis of its screenwriting. A great movie soars into the stratosphere into an entirely different level of artistic achievement when afforded just the right balance of action, sentiment, intrigue and humor. These qualities are abundant on display in tandem in The Fifth Element; each plucked with the finite precision of a skilled conductor making magical music with the instruments at his disposal. Director, Luc Besson intrinsically understands how to create compelling drama from what could have devolved into a hugger-mugger of badly bungled sci-fi. I have seen too many bad science fiction movies in my lifetime, though particularly of late, making solidly crafted ones like The Fifth Element stick out all the more by contrast. The Fifth Element is undeniably one of the great sci-fi adventures of all time; peerless in its production values and skillful in telling its story without ever slipping either into farce-laden idiocy or amateur theatrics, the latter prone to taking itself far too seriously. Instead, we have a movie of well-rounded simplicity achieved through painstaking behind-the-scenes chaos: a good story, expertly told with some ground-breaking visuals to augment and sell it as high art.
What a joy to see The Fifth Element debuted in a 4K transfer derived from newly remastered elements. In the early era of Blu-ray mastering, it was fashionable to ‘enhance’ the image being ported over to hi-def, artificially bumping up contrast and colors to ‘reveal’ new information previously unavailable in standard def. But this was neither to the film maker’s liking nor intent; the result, a lot of early Blu-ray’s looking like a Mexican fiesta on Olvera Street rather than closely mimicking their theatrical experience. Sony’s first bite at The Fifth Element on Blu-ray, alas, favored more of this former description; its already multi-colored patina appearing as a Starburst fruit-flavored mess with exceptionally orange flesh tones. Worse, the early offering suffered from edge effects and hints of age-related debris during many of the optical effects. Mercifully, all of these shortcomings have been corrected on this new Blu-ray release. The results are nothing short of reference quality and astounding. As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this restoration effort is well worth the price of a double-dip.
Sony has delivered the goods: amazing depth, stunning clarity, thoroughly realistic flesh tones, eye-popping and enriched colors, rock-solid contrast and an image utterly void of any untoward digital manipulations. Prepare to be amazed, because the quality herein is, in a word, flawless. Every studio endeavoring to do right by their catalog should look to Grover Crisp, Sony and The Fifth Element as the touchstone in digital mastering. Sony has once again set the bar very high indeed. Better still, Sony has given us two ways to listen to the movie: the stellar PCM, ported over from the previous hi-def release, plus a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Both are 5.1 the PCM – at least on my system – still my drug of choice, with a robust and thoroughly natural sonic clarity. The new HD audio is slightly softer to my ears, and also seems less refined – or perhaps, merely lacking the aural bombast of its predecessor. But even more rewarding: this time around, Sony has favored us with a storehouse of extra features; archived interviews assembled with intelligent design, featuring many of the principle cast and crew, plus more recently produced ‘discussion’ pieces that absolutely cover the creation of this movie from every conceivable angle. I’ll leave it to the purchaser to discover everything included herein; the consumer well-rewarded with copious materials – outtakes, deleted scenes, storyboards, commentaries, and so much back story on the making of the movie, it will surely please both the novice and avid film collector alike. Bottom line: Sony has done a bang-up job on The Fifth Element. This newly remastered disc belongs on everyone’s top shelf of ‘must haves’ this holiday season. Spectacular entertainment such as this is very hard to come by these days. Immaculately authored Blu-rays of this caliber are an even greater anomaly. How sad! Bottom line: very, VERY highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)