‘The Fifth Element’ At 20: The Cacophonous Future People Couldn’t Quite Process

It’s fitting that The Fifth Element would turn 20 the same week as Star Wars day and the release of the Guardians Of The Galaxy sequel. Movies like Guardians probably wouldn’t exist without The Fifth Element, and for me it’s a bit like like my Star Wars. Whenever I hear a previous generation wax nostalgic about having their minds blown by a bonkers space fantasy that they watched over and over trying to soak up every nuance, I think of The Fifth Element.

The weird thing about watching movies for a living is that it turns watching movies into a job. It beats digging ditches, obviously, but sitting down for a whole movie does begin to feel like a burden from time to time. Yet if The Fifth Element comes on cable, movie watching instantly transforms back into a leisure activity for me. I’m glued to the couch for at least the next 30 minutes. Every scene is so maniacally inspired you just can’t take your eyes off of it, and with each new viewing you find, Lebowski-like, a new side character whose reaction to the madness seems to say everything.

Whereas director Luc Besson claims to have written León/The Professional 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, seeming to explode at you as you’re watching it, a bukkake of inspired madness.

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; 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 seems to vibrate with the same sensibility that makes the French love Jerry Lewis.

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.)

The Fifth Element is very different from Star Wars in that it’s largely pretty cynical about humanity. 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 also feels 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 was both very cool to teen me and also feels very French. The Fifth Element depicts humanity at its most cosmic jokiest.

The Future As Utter Clusterf*ck

Earlier visions of the future — especially those from the ’50s and ’60s, when people were still confident in the eventuality of some techno-utopia, poverty banished along with manual labor and genital secretions — tended to depict the future as clean, minimalist, orderly. Everyone wearing the same silver jumpsuit and so forth. The Fifth Element, is pretty close to the precise opposite of that. It depicts the future as a screeching, beeping, intrusive clusterfuck.

More dystopian visions of the future feature a world overcome by ecological disasters (Avatar, Wall-E), or destroyed by war (Planet of the Apes, The Day the Earth Stood Still), or overrun by criminality (Escape from New York, Demolition Man), or controlled by a fascist surveillance state (Dredd, 1984), or beset by crass consumerism gone wild (Back to the Future Part II, Idiocracy), etc. One of the great things about The Fifth Element is that while it contains slivers of all of these, it’s neither utopian nor dystopian. It’s not preachy and it doesn’t feel at all like a cautionary tale — it’s just honest extrapolation, even when it’s slightly uncomfortable.

There’s a hint at ecological disaster, like when Leeloo (Jovovich) crashes into Korben Dallas’s cab and they escape the police by driving underneath the fog — the implication being that the Earth has become so polluted they had to build up to escape the sooty clouds of smog and particulate. The rub is that humanity doesn’t quite screw up the Earth enough to kill ourselves, and human ingenuity doesn’t really solve problems, but it manages just well enough to deal with them while we continue to procreate.

Consumerism gone wild is everywhere, from Ruby Rhod and the trip to Fhloston Paradise to Korben’s specially designed quit-smoking cigarettes — with the filter that gets longer and longer as you slowly wean yourself off of them. The Fifth Element is constantly just showing brilliant touches like that with no explanation offered, because no explanation is needed. It explains itself, in the ultimate testament to production design. The cigarettes, like everything else in this world, are sort of tacky and defined by a loud capitalism that markets band aids to real problems. Some things are better, some are worse, but mostly they’re just louder and more intrusive, which even 20 years later feels all too real. My favorite bit might be the door-to-door flying Chinese food restaurant. I still want that so bad. And that’s kind of the point: the future is the way it is exactly because we want stupid stuff like that.

The world of The Fifth Element is also sort of crime-ridden. Think the mugger who sticks a giant gun in Korben’s face in his introduction scene. A mugger who, by the way, tricked Korben into opening the door by wearing a hat with a fake picture of the view out of Korben’s peephole on it. How long was that guy standing there? What drugs is he on? How awesome is that?!

Even 20 years and countless rewatches later I still had to rewind this scene to fully understand what had happened. In that context, it’s not surprising that a lot of critics didn’t quite get it the first time around. The “tough” looking gun with spikes coming out of it, the human silhouette on the gunsight (which overtly shouts “this gun is for killing humans!”), the hapless, stuttering mugger (one of those moments that seems especially French)… It’s just so good. It’s hard to even write about The Fifth Element without stopping to break down the sheer brilliance of every single frame. (By the way, if you go to Comic-Con dressed as the GIMME DA CAZZSH guy, you’re for sure getting laid by multiple Sailors Moon.)

The Fifth Element takes place in this crime-ridden world where muggers stick giant guns in your face before breakfast and it’s just sort of ho-hum. And where a street-wise man knows to put his hands in the little circles when the quasi-fascist police force shows up.

“Sir, are you classified as human?”

“Negative, I am a meat popsicle.”

One of the things I love so much about The Fifth Element is that among so many other future movies that depict the state as this powerful, malevolent, hyper-controlling architect of future society, The Fifth Element depicts a quasi-fascist state that’s mostly just a mild pain in the ass, staffed by self-interested incompetents. The cops will begrudgingly disregard your meat popsicle cracks so long as you go through the motions and put your hands in the circles, while direct defiance (“Smoke you!” “…wrong answer, pal.”) will get you thrown in a giant sack and carted off to space prison.

The cops show up in Judge Dredd-like helmets with giant guns, their military trappings and mandate to use deadly force having only expanded since the present. Meanwhile, the cops themselves are mostly just the same mustachio’d, half-bright clock punchers you find in every profession.

Needless to say, 20 years later this seems just as accurate a prediction as it was in 1997, if not more so. The future is insanely advanced, a place where your microwave thingy can synthesize an entire cooked chicken in a split second, but the Rastafarian ground crew still has to burn the space rats off your landing gear before your space ship can take off. (I love that weird-ass scene so much.) There are still haves and have nots, drug addicts, industrialists, and crime. Technology changes, police militarize, everyone grasps for more control, but that doesn’t mean they get any more competent. The hyper-capitalist state is dangerous, but not because it’s rigidly controlled, more because it gives deadly power to the same fallible idiots we all are.

Moebius, Jean-Paul Gaultier, And The High-Water Mark Of Production Design

To create the look of The Fifth Element, Besson hired French comic book artists Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius) and Jean-Claude Mézières as production designers, the latter of whom co-authored The Circles Of Power, a comic about guy who drives a flying cab in a futuristic New York City. Besson would go on to adapt Mézières’ Valérian and Laureline into the upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Moebius, whose concepts and storyboards were used in a number of other films, including Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, Tron, Willow, and The Abyss, would eventually sue Besson for borrowing heavily from The Incal, which Moebius authored with would-be Dune filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Giraud ultimately lost the suit, at least in part because Besson had paid him to work on The Fifth Element.

That was a bit of irony, since George Lucas had long been accused of ripping off Valerian in Star Wars, and the unstated corollary to Besson’s pitch — “I want to use your drawings in my film, but I want to pay you for it” — was “unlike that thief George Lucas.”

(Incidentally, the suites in Fhloston look eerily similar to the interior of Dubai‘s sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab, right down to the color scheme. I took a tour a few months ago and couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living in Fhloston Paradise.)

In any case, regardless of his inspiration, The Fifth Element is one of the all-time high water marks of production design. It’s so good that, to a certain extent, the story being told with acting and words doesn’t matter, because it’s secondary to the story being told with scenery and side characters. You’re being assaulted by something loud and blinking — and above all orange, the most intrusive color in every scene, with kitschy techno punk always emanating from somewhere. It feels like a winking critique of capitalism, where commerce is everywhere and always shouting to get your attention.

At some level I can understand being initially put off by the shrillness of it, but again, even 20 years later, all of the satire seems dead on. And none of it comes off as a drag or a warning, because it’s fun. For all our flaws and general incompetence, humanity is still worth saving at the end. (Because love! The beauty of The Fifth Element is that it’s simultaneously brilliant and really dumb.)

Of course, of all the people having fun working on The Fifth Element, which seems to include every single person involved, the guy having the most might be the costume designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier. Where else could the world-famous fashion designer get away with creating an entire world of shriekingly loud oversexed androgynous fascist functionaries and bondage punks except inside a Luc Besson movie? Ruby Rhod’s open necklines, Korben Dallas’s backless orange (of course) halter top that he somehow makes look masculine, Leeloo’s infamous “thermal bandages…” There isn’t a character in the movie that isn’t a conversation piece. (Prince was originally set to play Ruby Rhod, which makes total sense, and yet I’m so glad that he didn’t).

The crew of the cruise ship especially looks like some Wes Anderson Boy Scout troupe as envisioned by a flamboyant Frenchman.

What is he even holding on his hip there? Umbrella? Light saber?

I’ve heard The Fifth Element called sexist, and it’s certainly possible to make the case. (The way Brion James, as General Munro, confusedly looks Major Iceborg up and down like a show horse when Dallas balks at posing as her husband — because she’s “manly?” — seems fairly egregious.) But if that read is based on the sexualized McDonald’s waitresses and open-boobed air hostesses, it seems misguided. The movie does, after all, depict a quasi-authoritarian nation state and crass commercialism gone insane. It’d be weird to expect the inherent sexism of those things not to exist in the future.

Besides, it’s not even that far from today’s reality.

Mostly it feels delightfully androgynous (and full of Anna Wintour wigs, but that’s another story). It’s hard to fit into one unifying theme or ideology (which is part of the fun). What to make, for instance, of Baby Ray, the stage and screen actor introduced by Ruby Rhod at the beginning of the gala, who has a giant head of permed white hair and is “stone deaf?” He seems to be wearing a woman’s lace dress, but he’s played by a giant muscular guy — Ian Beckett, in his only screen credit. Beckett was apparently a bodybuilder, and one of the only non-Fifth Element related links you can find of him online is him posing to a Janet Jackson song.

This scene feels like it’d fit into The Fifth Element perfectly.

The film’s style choices feel mostly like a series of embedded backstories. The point of it all is that the future contains echoes of the present, but refracted into something weirder than you can imagine. I imagine trying to explain 2017 to someone from 1750 would feel a little like The Fifth Element. The Fifth Element does an incredible job creating a world that’s vaguely familiar and inscrutably strange at the same time. You can spend the whole movie trying to imagine how Baby Ray went deaf, or who’s hearing Ruby Rhod’s radio show, or whether The Diva has made opera popular again.

The film itself is like that too. It contains echoes of so many other things yet feels so utterly unique. After The Fifth Element, Gaultier would go on to be the costume designer for only one other feature film (Almodovar’s Bad Education) — just one, in the next 20 years. I like to think that’s because he nearly killed himself designing 200 different outfits for three types of air stewards, a future cabin crew, well-to-do aliens on holiday, a futuristic engine room…

The Human Tapestry

Gaultier was famously one of the first big fashion designers to embrace “unconventional” models, old and fat and pierced and tattooed. It’s hard to know how much that influenced the casting in The Fifth Element, but it’d be hard to find a film with a richer human tapestry. There are the fashion models, sure, like Jovovich (who was 19 at the time, and had to learn the made-up “divine language” Besson invented for the film) and tattoo-headed Eve Salvail (above, who was, not surprisingly, first discovered by Gaultier), but there’s also an entire legion of pockmarked, lazy-eyed functionaries and beautiful bystanders of every nationality. Perhaps no movie has ever had a better eye for interesting faces than The Fifth Element.

How many movies would’ve cast Tiny Lister, aka Deebo from Friday, who’d played virtually nothing but bullies and bouncers at that point, as a six foot five President of the Federated Territories with a lazy eye?

Not only that, how many would cast Tiny Lister as the president and not have it be an overt comment on anything? (Think of Lister as President Lindberg vs. Terry Crews as President Camacho in Idiocracy, in which there’s an explanation why a giant buff black guy is president.) He’s not playing a president bully or a president idiot. He’s not fully evil and he’s not a hero. He’s decisive but usually wrong, and concerned throughout with popularity and optics. (“I wanted this action discreet!”). He acts, in short, pretty presidential.

The Fifth Element, by the way, seems to have a bit of a fetish for the pockmarked and lazy-eyed.

Even Korben’s cat is kind of cross-eyed.

An almost equal number of characters are manic and twitchy and stuttering and covered in sweat. (Cornelius’s assistant, Korben’s mugger, Ruby Rhod, the police, etc.). It seems like a small thing, but even today it’s hard to find a movie set in the future where everyone isn’t traditionally cute, milky smooth, and perfectly symmetrical, one where everyone isn’t 23 and doesn’t look like, well, like they just stepped out of a casting agent’s office in LA.

It’s so simple and yet so rarely done well — The Fifth Element is, at its elemental level, visually interesting.

So what’s the takeaway here? Lots of people hated The Fifth Element when it came out, but it made lots of money, and more importantly became a cultural touchstone for much of Generation Y. It has that quality common to a lot of cult films, which is that it’s overwhelming and convoluted upon first watch, but has so many layers that each subsequent viewing is rewarding in some way. (Notably, virtually all of The Fifth Element‘s layers are visual.) Cult films (and shows, and albums) are always a little like the scab you can’t stop picking. But even more than that, I think The Fifth Element illustrates that creativity is more important than coherence, that inspiration is more important than plot, and that you should listen when your gut tells you you’re onto something, even if you can’t quite articulate it perfectly.

The Fifth Element will return to select theaters on May 14th and 17th.