It’s fitting that The Fifth Element would turn 20 the same week as Star Wars day and the release of Guardians Of The Galaxy, because movies like Guardians probably wouldn’t exist without The Fifth Element. And for me, The Fifth Element is sort of like my Star Wars. The way a previous generation had its mind blown by an admittedly sort of cheesy space fantasy that they watched over and over, trying to soak up every nuance and backstory… yep, that’s The Fifth Element for me. I’m sure I’m not alone.
We don’t like to talk about it because it beats digging ditches, obviously, but there are a lot of times being a movie writer when watching movies is sort of a burden. There’s no way around it. Even when you’re watching something you like, if that movie is number two of 10 on your to-do list that week, movie watching starts to feel like what it is: a job. The Fifth Element was the exact opposite of that, a big bowl of comfort soup for my ears and eyes. Like Goodfellas or Casino or most Coen brothers movies, if I flip by it while I’m channel surfing, I’m going to be stuck there for at least 30 minutes. Every scene is so maniacally inspired you just can’t take your eyes off of it. With each new viewing you find, Lebowski-like, a new side character whose reactions to the madness seem to say everything.
Whereas director Luc Besson claims to have written León/The Professional (my other favorite Besson movie) in 14 days, he started the script for The Fifth Element, so the story goes, when he was 16. It became a novel, and later a script that ran to 400 pages, which is easy to believe when you watch the film. Besson was 38 when The Fifth Element finally came out, and the movie has nothing if not the feel of a shaken bottle uncorked. It seems to explode at you as you’re watching it, a not un-bukkake-like experience.
It’s no wonder critics were somewhat baffled by it when it came out. An Entertainment Weekly feature written the month it came out begins “Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element may be an incoherent sci-fi thriller set in 23rd-century New York City…”
That’s not even from a review. This was part of the lede and stated as simple fact. Milla Jovovich and Chris Tucker both received Razzie nominations for their work (for Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star, respectively), which is why the Razzies are and always have been garbage. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “The only elements that count are impact, impact, and impact. The Fifth Element is gibberish.”
In fact, in true “shit sandwich” style, many of the negative reviews included a “the fifth element is ___” diss. Scott Rosenberg of Salon wrote, creatively, yet entirely incorrectly: “…the fifth element is, appropriately enough, boron. As you sit through the interminable two-hours-plus that constitute The Fifth Element — a colossally stupid, overbearingly pompous new movie by Luc Besson — you can expect to become acquainted with boredom on the most elemental level.”
Boredom at The Fifth Element is almost as hard to understand as reading it as “pompous.” Roger Ebert seemed much closer to the truth when he called it “a jumble that includes greatness. Like Metropolis (1926) or Blade Runner, it offers such extraordinary visions that you put your criticisms on hold and are simply grateful to see them.”
Which is to say, it’s easy to understand being bewildered by the inherent too-muchness of it. The Fifth Element is like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil by way of The Last Boy Scout, combining goofily center-framed visions of a cacophonous future with a gruff, hyper masculine anti-hero and a French flair for slapstick. The Fifth Element was the most expensive French film ever made at the time, and it sort of radiates the country’s love of Jerry Lewis. Glayvin!
With its overt sex and violence (think Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod going down on a stewardess or Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas shooting a Warrior in the head), it’s sort of like Star Wars for adults. But even in a story that’s essentially about a showdown between good and evil, it so steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously that it’s hard to think of it as “epic.” (Seriously, “pompous?” How dare you.)
It’s largely pretty cynical about humanity, and everyone, including the supervillain, is kind of an idiot in his or her own way. That might be off-putting on first viewing, but it feels so accurate. And yet the climax comes down to the cynic (Dallas) having to justify all of existence to the supreme being before she’ll save the Universe. (Also, the hero basically gets to have sex with God at the end, which is cool.) The Fifth Element depicts humanity at its most cosmic jokiest. Maybe that’s why every comedian I know can quote it by heart.