The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)

Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich are in their, wait for it, element

Whenever I'm not feeling well, due to a cold or influenza, I have the irresistible urge to watch science fiction. Wait, let me back up. When I was around twelve years old, I remember it fondly, I once stayed home with a fever. Lying on the sofa, I watched reruns of Star Trek: Voyager that were on at the time. The images of distant worlds and the romantic idea of traveling the galaxy on a space ship left an indelible mark on my impressionable, by sickness enfeebled mind.

It just so happens I’m in the thrall of a cold right now. To remain in sci-fi territory; it feels as if underneath my face a new face is growing and it’s pushing through like a set of permanent teeth. Reason enough to turn to science fiction as an ointment. The Fifth Element seemed a proper choice.

The thing I want to write about is tone of film. A film’s tone is the feeling surrounding it. It’s a quality that weaves in between its genre, its acting, its décor, its cinematography, its everything. The Fifth Element managed to confuse me with its tone. Everything it does speaks of it being a parody of science fiction. Maybe not so much a parody as a loving, slapstick homage to the sort of sci-fi Luc Besson perhaps saw as a kid, much like how the Star Wars films were George Lucas’ homage to his childhood’s space serials. The Fifth Element is so weird. It brings rubber alien costumes, a floating Chinese chow skiff, an absurd radio DJ wearing lipstick, and more scene-chewing than Tommy Lee Jones pulls off in Batman Forever. It’s incredibly French.

But then it never becomes a spoof. It commits to its weird vision of superficial sci-fi. Every beat brings another novelty that undermines the credibility of the world, but the next moment it doubles down on it and proudly says: “This is how it is. Wanna go along for the ride?” That ride turns out to be a rollercoaster of creativity that borders on the farcical. It is, perhaps, a quintessential product of the 1990s: a complete submission to style over substance. As such, it might not have been science fiction’s brightest turn. The genre is capable of so much more than screwball antics with Bruce Willis.

What is there is harmless fun. The likes of Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman are clearly enjoying themselves, so why shouldn’t you? If anything, Milla Jovovich provides something delectable to look at. I will write more about her once I get to the Resident Evil series.

Looking back at the film, I notice that it didn’t give me that special feeling I was looking for in my current state. Though there are more than a few shots of space, futuristic ships and crazy aliens; it doesn’t capture the essence of science fiction. When all the wonderful costumes and eccentric acting fall away, most of the plot is just a lot of running around, chasing after a McGuffin. Though that eventually provides the best scene of the film – Gary Oldman opening the actual suitcase in the belief he has won, whereupon his laughter proves not of joy but frustration – it confirms once more that the possibilities of the genre are left unused, as clogged up as my nose.

Roderick Leeuwenhart


  1. Good point, I really need to rewatch this movie! Such fond memories, but so many years since I last saw it that I hardly remember it...

    Also, this reminds me that I really feel like starting the world-building for my Small Ship game, which should have a lot of sci-fi elements as well. :)