The Most Divisive — And Massive — Sci-Fi Movie Of The ‘90s Is Streaming Free Right Now
Does The Fifth Element make any sense? No. Is it still fun as hell? Let’s discuss.
There are obviously more than five “elements” found in nature. If you were to Google “What are the four elements?” you will find articles on ancient history, yoga spirituality, and at least one piece published on Goop in 2022 that asks the question: “How do the four elements define you?” But, if you’re a sci-fi film aficionado, the real question is: How does The Fifth Element define us as science fiction fans? If we love this movie, that love comes with several qualifications and intellectual contradictions. But if we hate this movie, that hate feels disingenuous; like hating our horoscope because astrology is fake, but also being extra mad because this week’s horoscope happened to be right.
To put it another way: The Fifth Element’s final twist (spoiler alert!) about the fifth element being “love” is corny, predictable, and silly. The concept of Leeloo’s agency (Milla Jovovich) — or lack thereof — is offensive for all sorts of reasons, and makes the sexist film noir aspects of Blade Runner look positively progressive by comparison. And yet, can we really write off The Fifth Element? Is the movie so bad that it’s good? The answer is probably a little more nuanced and a bit kinder to the film as a whole. Twenty-six years after it was released, The Fifth Element is an important aberration in science fiction cinema, specifically because it’s both absurdly generic and wildly unique simultaneously. It’s back on streaming — for free — and is certainly worth another look. Here’s why.
The Fifth Element begins like several Doctor Who episodes; in 1914 an ancient alien warned some folks about a coming darkness, and now 300 years later, that ultimate evil is back. Who you gonna call? Bruce Willis! It’s not until a full 16 minutes into the movie that we meet down-on-his-luck taxi cab driver Dallas (Bruce Willis) and then, nearly 30 minutes in, Leeloo is literally created, essentially like a Host from Westworld. She’s going to stop the coming darkness somehow, but first, she has to be conjured up, sorta like the movie forgot to have a character. While we see Leeloo being spun into the trope of a sexy-yet-innocent-ultimate-fighting machine, Bruce Willis’ character and personality are composed of equal parts from the cyberpunk cab driver from Heavy Metal and every previous Bruce Willis role, ever. So, let’s get this clear: The Fifth Element is not trying to make you think.
But, once Leeloo escapes into the cityscape of the future New York, and dives into the traffic of flying cars, The Fifth Element shifts gears into a kind of rom-com mashed up with a William Gibson novel. There is no meet-cute quite like a woman who has just been created in a lab falling through the roof of a washed-up cab driver’s flying car. And if you read that sentence back, and you still hate the entirety of The Fifth Element, you’ve almost certainly lost your sense of humor. Or, at the very least, you have no appreciation for the level of camp that this film is reaching for. Director Luc Beeson is no Paul Verhoeven when it comes to camp, but he’s trying to do something with The Fifth Element that is instantly memorable, if not always cohesive. To put it another way, The Fifth Element isn’t greater than the sum of its elements, but some of its elements are fun, original, and charming.
The heart and soul of The Fifth Element is, perhaps unsurprisingly the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. Yes, Chris Tucker is memorable as the talk show host Ruby Rhod, and Gary Oldman is at his most Gary Oldman as the villainous Zorg. But the reason we care, and can sit through this silly movie at all, is the star power of the literal star-crossed lovers of Dallas and Leeloo. Yes, their relationship is low-key creepy and also basically makes zero sense. And yet both of these legendary actors sell the relationship, which, of course, is the key to saving the entire universe.
If you’re going to hang your entire movie on the idea that love is a literal superpower that can defeat evil, like a big-budget episode of Care Bears, then selling that romance is crucial. This is something The Fifth Element gets right, even if it's mostly vibes, and not really anything that’s in the script. The movie often feels like it's winking at you for its absurdity. But anyone who called it the Star Wars of its generation should feel embarrassed now — the movie is a drive-by of sci-fi cliches and sexism, which, in fairness, is more fun to watch than most of Attack of the Clones.
In fact, in today’s over-saturated franchise-obsessed sci-fi movie landscape, it feels like we’re long overdue for a gonzo movie like this, if only for the sake of variety. The last weird mishmash we got like this was probably the deeply underrated Jupiter Ascending, which if it had come out in 1997 instead of The Fifth Element, would have probably resulted in a better timeline for all of humanity. The point is, that saying a sci-fi movie is one-of-a-kind isn’t always a compliment. Nor is it an insult. With The Fifth Element — it’s both.