25 years ago, Bruce Willis made the most divisive sci-fi movie ever
Whether you think it’s one of the best sci-fi movies ever or one of the worst, you’re never going to forget it.
“Narratively challenged, visually monotonous and aurally overpowering,” said The Hollywood Reporter. “Will change the look of science fiction and will probably be imitated for years,” declared the San Francisco Chronicle. “One of the great goofy movies,” was Roger Ebert’s slightly backhanded compliment.
The initial response to The Fifth Element, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on May 7th, was divisive. It was recognized just as much at Cannes and the Oscars as it was the Razzies. Even those who appeared in its gleefully insane world have contrasting opinions, with Milla Jovovich hailing it as “one of the last hurrahs of epic filmmaking” and Gary Oldman admitting he “can’t bear it” and only signed up for the paycheck.
But time has been kind to Luc Besson’s fever dream film. In an era when every genre flick has been precision-tooled to maximize fanboy satisfaction, The Fifth Element now stands out as perhaps the last bastion of truly idiosyncratic blockbusters. This is a movie where an armadillo-esque alien gets trapped in an ancient Egyptian temple, the U.S. government generates a flame-haired nymph who only speaks a gibberish Divine Language, and a blue latex-clad soprano literally holds the key to the future of civilization. Little wonder that Buena Vista bosses were utterly perplexed on seeing the final edit.
Besson later argued that Americans simply weren’t ready for such a spectacle. That’s not quite true: The Fifth Element did respectable numbers at the U.S. box office, grossing $17 million in its chart-topping opening weekend. However, its European sensibilities were embraced more widely across the Atlantic. A colossal 7.7 million tickets were sold in the director’s French homeland alone, no doubt placating the execs concerned they had the next Cutthroat Island on their hands.
Every cent of the $90 million budget they somehow handed over to Besson is on the screen too. Say what you like about The Fifth Element’s nonsensical story – cab driver and humanoid unite to reclaim mystical stones that will thwart fire-blazing manifestation of evil – but it looks truly spectacular.
Production designers Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean Giroud amalgamate all the best parts of Metropolis (the reconstruction scene), Blade Runner (the futuristic cityscape) and Flash Gordon (the sheer campness), not to mention their own work (Korben’s flying New York taxi is ripped from the pages of Mézières’ comic book The Circles of Power) to help bring Besson’s dystopian yet colorful vision of 2263 to life.
Their astonishing attention to detail is also matched by French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. From Korben’s orange vest to Leeloo’s iconic ACE-Bandage outfit, Gaultier makes almost every character look like they’ve just stepped off the Paris Fashion Week runway. Even the McDonald’s employee gets an outlandish golden arches wig. It’s a travesty that the only Academy Award nod came in Best Sound Editing.
The performances might not be as awards-worthy. Nevertheless, The Fifth Element is a timely reminder of just how effortlessly Willis nailed the whole wisecracking hero shtick back in the ‘90s. Jovovich, who’s since graced a string of far less imaginative B-movies, is so magnetic that you still hang on Leeloo’s every word even though they’re all gobbledygook. And although he’s been keen to distance himself from the film, Oldman hams it up brilliantly as the villain whose soul patch, Hitler-inspired hair, and Texan accent are almost as disturbing as his world-ending masterplan.
Chris Tucker’s turn as wild-haired and even wilder-dressed shock jock Ruby Rhod, on the other hand, remains one of the decade’s ultimate love it or hate it performances. To some, his exuberant Prince-esque (he actually replaced the Purple One in the role) presence is perfectly in keeping with the movie’s anything goes approach. To others he’s the Jar Jar Binks of the movie, a shrieking, screeching nuisance incapable of dialing things down below eleven.
Whatever your viewpoint, it’s hard not to admire the fact that such a big-budget affair, especially one back in the late ‘90s, had the confidence to challenge gender norms. The Fifth Element was actually criticized by some scholars for its imbalance of the sexes. But men like the unapologetically queer Ruby are far from the blustering macho types usually found; we even see Korben nearly shedding a tear during Diva Plavalaguna’s operatic display, quite possibly the movie’s standout moment.
And while Leeloo is the sole female character of any note, she has all the power. It’s ultimately her decision whether to act on the attraction between herself and Korben and, just slightly more significantly, whether to save the human race from extinction. Despite witnessing video footage of the numerous garbage fires that mankind has been responsible for over the past few centuries, Leeloo eventually does and then rewards herself with some coital action in a recovery chamber.
Yes, The Fifth Element leaves dozens of questions unanswered. Why is Zorg on board with The Great Evil’s nuke mission when that means he’d perish too? We do, however, find out that apparently love can conquer all, a rather simplistic message for a film which has previously been anything but.
Yet no one watches Besson’s work for coherence or deep profundity. This is a man who pioneered the style over substance technique known as Cinéma du look, after all. And with this insane space opera still capable of thrilling the senses a quarter-century on, history now seems to be on the side of those who embraced its knowingly absurd “big-bada-boom.”
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