Film (1997). Gaumont. Directed by Luc Besson. Costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Cast includes Maïwenn Besco, Ian Holm, Mila Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker and Bruce Willis. 126 minutes. Colour.
1914. An archaeologist discovers strange hieroglyphs in a hidden Egyptian tomb. Deciphered, they indicate that the Underground chamber has for almost 5000 years concealed a great Weapon consisting of four stones that manifest the normal four Elements of tradition, plus a sarcophagus that contains a fifth element, apparently in human form. Once weaponized into a single unit, the elements will come in handy in 300 years as Earth will need to be defended from a Great Evil due to arrive then, precisely five millennia after its last visit. The Extraterrestrial Mondoshawans now land from outer space and take the elements away for safekeeping, just a blink in time from the hour of greatest need. (It is not easy to understand this.) They give an attendant priest the key to the chamber, and instruct him to tell his descendants to prepare for the Evil.
300 years pass. Senescent military commanders serving what seems to be a World State governed from New York detect a vast globular mass entering the solar system very fast, which immediately destroys their battleship on its course Earthwards. Meanwhile, the Mondoshawans attempt to return the five elements at this moment of crisis, but their ship is destroyed by another alien race, the rapacious Mangalores, who are Shapeshifters and not subtle with it. From the wreckage of the Mondoshawan ship is recovered a hand-shaped fragment torn from a severely damaged sarcophagus. Back in New York, Earth scientists activate a complex 3D-Printer-like reconstitution device, which is programmed by the impossibly complex genetic code contained in the fragment (see Genetic Engineering) to recreate whatever lifeform it may contain in concentrated form. A human duly takes shape, the stark naked Leeloo (Jovovich), shot in soft focus and soon draped in flimsy gear created by The Fifth Element's brilliant costume designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier, who effectively dresses (and inspires) the rest of the film. Leeloo may be the Fifth Element in utero, but at the moment of her instantiation in the flesh (see Avatars) is an easily spooked tabula rasa. After the doddering generals duly spook her, she breaks out of the high-security lab and literally falls into Manhattan.
Meanwhile, ex-Special-Forces major and now aerial taxi-driver Korben Dallas (Willis) sets off into the Manhattan air-lanes to pick up fares. As she continues her dive into the city, however, Leeloo falls through the cab roof, and Dallas saves her from the militarized but dumb New York police. Meanwhile, the priest Vito Cornelius (Holm), the bearer of knowledge bestowed by the Mondoshawans in 1914, vainly attempts to convince the world president that the Great Evil is not to be toyed with, and that the five elements must be united or Earth will perish. Meanwhile, arch-villain and industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Oldman) is told by his Overlord the Great Evil (who never appears on camera) to obtain the five elements before they can be used. Dallas takes Leeloo to Cornelius, but the transfer is interrupted by Earth military units and a mercenary unit of Mangalores on hire to Zorg. Meanwhile, it is discovered that the other four elements had earlier been entrusted by the persistently incompetent Mondoshawans to an alien opera singer, Diva Plavalaguna (Besco), who is about to sing an aria on the luxury cruiser Fhloston Paradise, semi-converted into a Space Habitat.
The cast high-tails it towards the Fhloston Paradise; en route, Dallas falls into the orbit of hyperbolically camp interplanetary media star Ruby Rhod (Tucker), who guides him through the vast habitat. Various heavily choreographed conflicts ensue, and the opera singer is mortally wounded, but Dallas extracts the four elements from her body; Leeloo is savagely attacked by Zorg in the course of finding a box supposedly containing the four elements. But it proves to be empty, and he must return to the habitat, where he had previously installed a time bomb, to look for the elements. Bomb alerts cause panic while Dallas (a world-class pilot) and Leeloo and Rhod and Cornelius escape, but Zorg is less lucky. He defuses one time bomb but the Mangalores, whom he had betrayed, suicidally set off another, and they all die.
Back in Egypt the four elements are safely installed in their pillars, but Leeloo has suffered something like genuine vastation (see Horror in SF), as her inhumanly rapid education in Earth ways had exposed her to range of images of humans at War, after our fashion; and she loses the will to live. Just in time, Dallas tells her that the heart of what makes humans great is love, and that he loves her. This charges her with hope. She unites herself with the other elements, generating the explosive release of her Divine Light: the Great Evil is zapped just before it demolishes Earth. In a coda, the world president wants to talk to Dallas and Leeloo, but they are busy having Sex in the reconstitution chamber.
A film so exorbitantly and in-your-face silly begs to be confronted, and a long synopsis (see above) seems justifiable; for there is no way to welcome The Fifth Element, and to give proper credit to its patent awareness of the sf story-logistics travestied here, without surrendering to its storyline. Once that is done, the secret marriage of Gaultier's costuming and Besson's kinetic hyperventilation can be properly noticed, and gift the viewer with some genuine joy. The film is without longueurs, or second thoughts. Except for the excruciatingly uncomfortable Oldman (whose costume is devilish), the actors seem genuinely to enjoy pushing their roles to the point of demolition, then holding back. Both Leeloo and Rhod speak, or rather warble, their idiolects in melismatic space-operatic bursts clearly meant not to be followed, except as music. The same may be said for The Fifth Element as a whole: we don't understand a word of it, but we understand the tune.
The novelization is The Fifth Element (1997) by Terry Bisson. [JC]
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