They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
By that I mean The Fifth Element, which came out twenty years ago today. We got a seemingly ordinary cab driver, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), whose past has given him the skills that could just help him save the world. We also have Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a hot love interest who holds the key to saving said world. And we got some great villains, action, explosions, and futuristic technology. In many ways, it’s not surprising that director Luc Besson starting writing the screenplay when he was sixteen. In many ways, The Fifth Element is every teenage boy’s fantasy.
I suppose technically, they do make ’em like that. But dig a little deeper, and there’s a lot more going on, even more than those Marvel movies that are trying to explore issues of civilian casualties and responsibilities in war. While The Fifth Element is trying to say a few things, mostly about the environment, consumerism, humanity’s greed and reliance on technology, it’s not exactly trying to promote an agenda. Sometimes the only thing that’s going on is a whole lot of very creative insanity.
The weirdness inherent in this film is really the most unique thing about it. There’s Gary Oldman’s gleefully unhinged performance as the villainous Zorg, the weird metallic aliens, the colorful costumes, Bruce Willis as a blonde, and all the various weird little side characters. Hell, you could write a whole article about Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod, who was originally meant to be played by Prince. He’s got one of the most phallic sounding names ever, and in many ways he’s a manic ball of energetic stereotypes as he prances around in effeminate clothing with the mannerisms to match. Yet he regularly makes women swoon and has no trouble getting it on with as many as he can.
That’s where things get awkward. The way the movie depicts women is the only part of the The Fifth Element that hasn’t aged well. For the most part, they’re either sex objects bursting with cleavage, silent servants to male authority figures, or sexless characters stripped of all femininity. The movie is just barely saved by the charmingly bonkers Leeloo, as well as the movie’s only exception to the rule, the alien Diva, played by Besson’s then-wife Maïwenn, who he ended up leaving for Jovovich. The Diva’s utterly entrancing, completely hypnotic solo may well be the closest we ever get to a real-life siren’s song.
The Fifth Element has only grown more unique as audiences have become increasingly inundated with action movies. For one thing, The Fifth Element is not a reboot. Nor is it an adaptation of a book, or graphic novel. It is a wholly original screenplay with is its own self-contained story, with no efforts made to build a franchise. The future it depicts is neither a utopia in crisis or a dystopia on the cusp of change. It is merely a flawed setting much like our own, where people are coping with terrorism and inequality. The characters spend the movie wrestling with these issues because they are either in positions of authority, or they have been forcibly thrust into the situation. But the general population is mostly going on with their lives.
Twenty years later, there is also no official sequel, but perhaps the upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which has Luc Besson returning to futuristic sci-fi, could be considered a more spiritual one, with all the toys and visual wonder today’s effects can provide.