The Fifth Element

Directed by Luc Besson, 1997, starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich and Chris Tucker, story by Luc Besson, music by Eric Serra, costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier, production designer, Dan Weil, 105 minutes. PG-13.

By Carter B. Horsley

This parody of blockbuster sci-fi and adventure films is exuberantly casual in its throwaway of good material. It is like a rapid-fire comedian who steps on his own great jokes, forgetting, or not knowing, to pause for the laughter.

It is oddly paced, beginning slowly in an archaeological dig in Egypt in 1914 where the threat of apocalyptic destruction every 5,000 years is hieroglyphically discovered as well as four abstractly carved stones representing the four elements that are whisked away by relatively non-aggressive, bronzed, horse-shoe-like aliens with tiny insect heads who land and depart in what one critic has described as a rutabaga spaceship.  The film then jumps ahead to New York for the next 5,000-year anniversary, the year 2214, where Bruce Willis is a driver of a Red-Grooms-like air-taxi in a vertiginous cityscape.

Willis apparently was formerly some space jockey/agent who has fallen on bad times, but is recruited by the dolt of a president of the Federation to find "The Fifth Element," a supreme being who can ward off the imminent arrival of evil forces bent on destroying the earth with the help of Zorg, a local madman played with Southern accent and much relish by Gary Oldman.

The Fifth Element, we are told by a priest who has been entrusted with this special knowledge, is a perfect being who when mixed with the other four conventional elements of earth, fire, water and air, can defend life and fight evil. The four stones, representing the four elements, had been handed down to him by other priests in the past.

The Fifth Element is a orange-coifed woman played by Milla Jovovich. She is recreated genetically by scientists from part of a limb that had been cut off from one of the aliens. She escapes from her birthing chamber in the lab by jumping off one of the mile-high-or-so buildings and crashing through the roof of Willis's cab that had been apparently cruising for fares at about the 200-story level.

The chase that ensues through these inflated canyons is the highlight of the film. It is a spectacular descent and spin through a Post-Modernist redeveloped New York that is as thrilling as the hallucinogenic trip at the end of 2001.  This cityscape is an awesome marvel of special effects as the Willis cab darts through what seems like hundreds of levels of intersecting air traffic in the city's still narrow streets, finally reaching a major level of fog that raises unanswered questions as to how high this city really is.

While this cityscape is clearly modeled on an illustration that appeared on the cover of a popular handbook, King's, of New York at the start of the 20th Century, it recalls the urban cliffs in Bladerunner, only one of many references in this movie to other famous films of the genre such as 2001, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc and others.

The sequence through this almost Edwardian skyscraper space, replete with McDonalds, is amazing, not for its retro architecture or ungainly vehicles, but for its complexity. It is a chase through an electron microscope of infinite resolution and surely one of the most remarkable feats of special effects yet. It moves instantly to the top of film chase lists and it also will calm the heart of anxious passengers in the back of contemporary cabs in what they once thought was heavy traffic.

At this point in the film, the viewer has been revitalized. The beginning tempo while slow was traditional, but the initial goofiness of the look of the plodding aliens, which bear a Pomodoro sculptural look of burnished, wet bronze with dark accents, was off-putting, neither inspiring nor fearsome nor, most importantly, wondrous.

The New York of 2214, however, is a jolt: the preservationists have joined forces with the developers and have filled the sky with parapets and skywalks and cornices and deep fenestration patterns and spires and the like, recalling the painted fantasy city of Erastus Salisbury Field, a primitive 19th Century American painter.

It is a city that begs to be explored. One wants to browse, shop windows and the like.

Unfortunately, the movie, more concerned with humans than mere buildings, moves on quickly.

Hopefully, the director, Luc Besson whose most famous previous film was the exciting La Femme Nikita, has backed up the cityscape images and three-dimensional computer data and can use them more extensively in other movies, sequels or not.

The movie's pace ebbs a bit as Willis falls in love with his scantily-clad and bruised passenger who speaks some universal language that sounds a bit like Swahili and which takes about a minute and a half to announce her name, that Willis shortens to Leeloo. LeeLoo possesses extraordinary learning powers and is a marvelous warrior(ess). Milla Jovovich portrays her with a precocious and alluring manner but her acting skills are quite remarkable when she comes out of a very cold and very long shower and is the best shivering actress in film history, even evoking some tenderness out of laconic, but smitten Willis.

The plot thickens when the bad Mangolore, aliens who look like they have descended from the Creature From the Blue Lagoon, destroy the Mondoshawan aliens we had met in 1914 who were on their way to rescue earth. Meanwhile a giant sphere of lava is speeding towards earth and Zorg is up to no good with his cellophane helmet unable to contain occasional streams of blood down his skull.

Mayhem ensues, of course.

Willis is recommissioned as an agent and goes off to recover the stolen four stones to empower Leeloo to save the world. He encounters a drag queen talk show host, Ruby Rhod, played by Chris Tucker, who proceeds to steal the movie. While there are nice bits of humor throughout the film, the audience at opening day, May 10, 1997, at the Sony Theater on Broadway between 67th and 68th Streets did not get hysterical until a few minutes after Tucker's appearance and then twittered at his every appearance. While the film has problems with its timing, Tucker pulls off his over-the-top miming and gagging and one-liners, many of which are so fast as to be unintelligible, so well that he is a runaway steamroller and should probably win an Oscar for supporting actor. His bit, and it is not short, is comparable only to Peter Sellars's crazy, cat-loving doctor in The Wrong Box as inspired lunacy.  He, and the director, and the film editor, achieve that delicious plateau of hysteria with Ruby Rhod that is just plain silly, just plain rollicking fun, although at least one critic, Rex Reed of The New York Observer, was not amused, adding that the movie, which opened the Cannes Film Festival in France this year, was a "bomb."

Willis et al must attend a concert given by a diva, played by Inva Mulle Tschaki who sings an aria from Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor that is strange, spellbinding and scary, yet magical and probably the finest opera segment in films since Diva.  The aria she sings, decked in fluorescent blue tubing and wearing a headdress handed down by the monster in Alien, is exotic and very, very beautiful and completely at odds with everything in the movie.  Instead of tires screeching in the midst of a madcap chase, it is an cooling tonic quenching the volcanic foolery of Ruby Rhod and the various villains.  It is an exquisitely abrupt interlude that is like the cosmic pulse of a bright Mark Rothko painting, thankfully jarring.

This very expensive and flamboyant film is original in many details despite its obvious pandering to the violence of the genre. It has abundant humor and is immensely entertaining. While flawed, it will be a classic, or, at least, make a lot of converts to opera.

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