Wild, loud, ridiculous, over-the-top in every conceivable way, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) is a feast for the senses, a one-of-a-kind thrill ride, a candy-colored cacophony of comic book logic and madcap mayhem taken to the absolute extreme, and beyond. With its vividly imagined universe full of outrageous characters, ancient prophecies, magical relics, and its unapologetically simplistic take on Good versus Evil, it is some sort of acid-drenched mashup of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though upon release it divided audiences and critics alike, it remained for years the world’s highest grossing French film, vindicating Besson and his pet project, which he conceived in his youth and finally managed to bring to the silver screen after years of struggle and at a cost which at the time made it the most expensive European film ever made.
Perhaps unfairly, based upon his earlier films Subway (1985) and The Big Blue (1988), critics have associated Besson with the French “Cinéma du look” movement of the 1980s that favors style and spectacle over substance or narrative.
Indeed it is easy, and enormously gratifying, to be carried away by the flashy indulgences of The Fifth Element: the deliriously campy performances by Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker, the amazing action sequences, the eye-popping art, costume and production design that is plausibly futuristic yet remains somehow distinctively mired in the ‘90s’ sensibility, the otherworldly appeal of Milla Jovovitch. But if one narrows their focus and is able to see beyond these obvious trappings, a more profound pleasure can be glimpsed underneath the flashing lights and perpetual motion. Besson has achieved a masterful example of cinema in its simplest, purest form.
Perhaps instinctively, in the primal innocence of youth (Besson was 16 when he first had the idea for the story of The Fifth Element), the future writer-director conceived a unique take on a story trope that found its perfect expression in motion pictures since their inception: the everyman rising from obscurity to become a hero. With tongue firmly in cheek, playing upon decades upon decades of such tales, Besson found his everyman in the sober, deadpan performance – the essential counterpoint to the histrionics of the other aforementioned players – of Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas, the cab driver from Brooklyn who rises from his humdrum day-to-day existence save the universe.
Besson’s working alchemy doesn’t stop here. After having concocted the epic story and brought it to full fruition in all its improbable, gleeful glory, he took things further and added an element that pays homage to all the great filmmakers that preceded him throughout history and places him firmly in their company. Without spoiling it for the uninitiated, it involves a cinematic device that uses the language of film to focus alternately on the largest possible picture and the smallest possible detail. Alfred Hitchcock spoke of this wonderful element in his conversations with Francois Truffaut, most specifically in relation to the famous shot of the party in Notorious (1946), in which the camera begins near the ceiling to take in the entire scope of the crowd, and then slowly descends, eventually coming to rest on the twitching, nervous fingers of Ingrid Bergman, which hold a simple key, a pivotal prop in the story. In one shot, without a word being spoken, Hitchcock set the scene and went from the widest possible area of focus to the narrowest, simultaneously telling a tale and setting up the situation for the action to follow.
In The Fifth Element there is no such singular shot, but Besson cleverly makes the action boil down to one key prop, itself the tiniest and most archaic anachronism in the teeming, technological world he has created. There are brief references to it throughout the movie, but suddenly near the ending there comes a moment when its significance is finally understood, and it fulfills its destiny as the key piece in a suspenseful sequence wherein the entire universe hangs in the balance, and in which the entire playful, powerful history of the cinema from the first silents to the far-flung future can be seen and understood. In that moment there can be no doubt as to the supremacy of the motion picture as the most unique and thrilling mass entertainment yet devised. Or, for that matter, the supremacy of the unique and thrilling entertainment of The Fifth Element.