I’ve always felt a certain comfort with Luc Besson’s THE FIFTH ELEMENT. This comfort is not due to its relatability, or emotional connection to the characters. In fact, I am grateful to not know what it feels like to have the weight of the universe riding on my shoulders or to have any friends with even a passing resemblance to the aurally offensive Ruby Rhod. The comfort comes from the completeness of the world that Besson creates in the film. It is inclusive and whole, and each time I visit that world it feels like a second home.
Released in 1997, THE FIFTH ELEMENT was in good company with the other science fiction films. That year brought us both the light and fun MEN IN BLACK and STARSHIP TROOPERS, and the contemplative CONTACT and GATTACA. Besson’s directly preceding film, LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL, was a poetic and quiet story of an assassin, his apprentice, and his houseplant. When he released the flashy and snappily edited THE FIFTH ELEMENT it was unlike any of his other efforts and unlike the rest of the science fiction films flooding the theaters.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT closely follows a few days in Korben Dallas’s (Bruce Willis) life. In the middle of an epically bad day a mysterious Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) literally crashes into him, begging for help. Dallas’s desire to save the damsel in distress clashes with his desire to not make his day any worse. Like any respectable, twisting plot Dallas and Leeloo become mixed up in multi-planetary drama. Like many of the most immersive films the plot is secondary to the world creation, and Besson’s world is enveloping.
The world in THE FIFTH ELEMENT is a completely fabricated version of our planet’s future. Everything from the cigarettes to the airports have been updated to reflect their culture. In striking opposition Besson managed to create a visually loud and invasive diegesis without spending much of the plot calling attention to it. In other words, for such a foreign feeling world there is little to no exposition explaining the culture we are plopped into along with Leeloo.
Takes a look at Dallas’s apartment. At first glance it looks similar to any tiny studio in any cramped modern city. The bed is near the kitchen, and there is a single window overlooking the city below. This basic setup is what makes it recognizable as Dallas’s home, which does not require any further discussion within the text of the film. The details included within the décor and layout tell us that there are many updates to interior design hidden in plain sight. Dallas’s stowaway bed automatically changes linens and gets presented in a fresh plastic sheet whenever it is stored away. His shower is found on top of the refrigerator, each taking turns hiding in either the floor or ceiling to make room. He also gets food delivered directly to his window via a floating food stall, which add depth to the modes of delivery available in the world. Every corner of Dallas’s home has been updated to fit his world.
Besson puts a lot of trust in the audience to observe and understand these modernizations. As an audience member it feels good to have a director treat me like an intelligent, active viewer, who does not need everything spelled out for me. This is unlike another science fiction film also released in 1997, GATTACA. GATTACA also takes place in the future in a world both similar and different from our own. But the world that is created in GATTACA always feels forced to me. Though I honestly do enjoy the film, I always resent that each detail of the world is trotted out in front of the camera and blatantly discussed. There are no details lurking in the corner of an apartment for me to discover. Nothing is included for the sake of world creation, it is all a part of the plot. That feels less like wholly designing a world, and in the end results in a less comfortable film experience.
My comfort in THE FIFTH ELEMENT comes from this active viewership. I’ve been asked to, and allowed to, explore Dallas’s apartment and all of the other locations within the film. I’ve gotten to know each character by their dress and manner, and not simply told what to look at. Parallel to the titillating plot Besson has created a new space and invited all of us to explore it. After all of these years spending time with Leeloo and Dallas it has begun to feel a bit like home.