Monday, July 20, 2015

The Fifth Element

If you read my blog, you'll notice the first list of links on the sidebar is "Random Movie Reviews." When I say 'random' I really mean random. Most of the time when I read movie reviews, they're usually recently released movies that are being reviewed. Well I say scratch that! This time I'm going to really break tradition and write a review of one of my most favorite films of all time: The Fifth Element.

The film stars Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Ian Holm and Gary Oldman, among many other lesser-knowns and supermodel types. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it was originally released in 1997, and is now available in every format you can imagine, and streaming on Netflix, last I checked.

The premise of the film is similar to other space fantasy adventures: there's the unwitting hero, the damsel in distress, the arch nemesis, and the comic relief. Sound familiar? Yes, I will admit, the premise is a bit formulaic, but throughout the story, the characters earn their distinctiveness:  through their dialogue, through their actions, and through their emotions.

The makeup, the costumes, the sets and the props are all very outlandish and obscure (as if Star Wars was some kind of barometer of normalcy). Some of them are just downright ridiculous. But Luc Besson ties the story together very well with cinematography, characterization and of course music. Although the music is a bit strange, it really works for the film. It really helps to make the film stand on its own, in the white noise that is sci-fi/fantasy. I have said many times before, and I stand by my beliefs, music can make or break a film.

Take the Twilight Saga for example:  If it weren't for the muse (and the epic wide shots of the Pacific Northwest and Southwest Canada), I would have never had any interest in the films. The stories are bland, the characters are carved out of wood, but somehow the music makes them come to life. The music is like another character in the story, darkening or lightening the mood as needed. It's the same in The Fifth Element.

I still remember the night I saw it for the first time. I was with my brother and some friends. We were all done with high school, and college for that matter (at least for the time being), in our twenties. Some really great films were made back then.

I always loved sci-fi and action films, and Bruce Willis was a popular action film star. No one had heard of Milla Jovovich so we were all taken by surprise when we saw her.

There are a number of things I liked in particular about The Fifth Element.

First, the plot is exactly the kind of Star Wars story-line that has appealed to me since I was three years old. "The hero's journey," to quote George Lucas; an Arthurian quest based on legends and prophecies featuring an unwitting hero, a strong but fragile sorceress, and a host of colorful characters (literally). All of which takes place in the distant future and spans the entire galaxy.

Another thing I like about the film is that it is a very subtle satire which pokes fun at American pop culture from a French point of view. So subtle, that only recently did I discover this. Luc Besson's senses of humor and style are evident in every scene:  in the sets, the props, the makeup, the costumes and the dialogue. I can see how the over-designed appearance of the film and flashy exposition of color could be a turn off to some people. I've found that people either really love the film, or completely hate it, and not much in between. There are a lot of gags in the film that really don't make a lot of sense at first, or just go unnoticed because of Besson's very French sense of humor. It's kind of like seeing a foreigner try to make a joke, especially one with a tricky context. For the most part, it really is an English-language French film.

One of my favorite parts is the Opera scene in which a crazy, outlandish diva does a striking song and dance. The Diva Plavalaguna is the most ridiculous looking character in the film. She stands about seven feet tall, has the voice of an angel, and is blue from head to toe, inside and out...literally. The costume is just plain bizarre. In fact, looking at her ,you can't really tell where creature ends and costume begins, and the headpiece is just downright silly. You can actually see the mistakes in the back. However, the design work that went into this character is remarkable (I have seen the sketches and drawings on YouTube) and her song is breathtaking.

"Leeloo Dallas-Multipass"

OK, that's not her actual name, but definitely the most memorable line she spoke, and completely smothered in context. Leeloo will always be who I think of when I think about Milla Jovovich. Not just because it was the first film I saw her in, but because I really believe she was the most iconic character she ever played.

The Fifth Element is one of those films where you expect the hero to be a guy. Going in, you're thinking you're gonna see Bruce Willis kick some ass, and hear the signature yell. Well he does, and he does. For the most part he is the quintessential hero. But the one who saves the day, or I should say the planet, is Leeloo. In the Nucleolab scene (where we get our first glimpse of Leeloo) when the cover slipped off the reactor, I DID NOT expect to see a 95lb supermodel with orange hair. (Besson's quirky sense of humor at work). Later, when you see her scared, shaking and crying throughout her escape ordeal, you would never expect that she is the one who saves humanity in the end. (Sorry for the spoiler, but you've had 18 years to see this film.)

Although I truly love the film, Bruce Willis' performance wasn't exactly stellar. This was about the time when he was doing a lot of action movies, and where he was basically playing "Bruce Willis" in most of them. His range wasn't exactly stellar. The character Korben Dallas was prototypical:  Tough guy, rough around the edges, but with a heart of gold and a weakness for adorable damsels in distress. Although he was the protagonist, Leeloo clearly stole the show.

Chris Tucker and Ian Holm shared in the comic relief. Each of them bumbling through scene after scene. And then of course, there is Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors because unlike so many of his peers, the characters he plays are completely distinct. Like Ben Kingsley, he often plays a character so well that you forget that it's him. Take for example a comparison of his portrayal of Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's Dracula; Sirius Black from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element. Three completely different characters played without even the slightest of common mannerism or delivery.

Zorg wasn't the most evil nor most powerful villain I've ever seen. However, he was one of the flashiest, almost like a cartoon character with his signature suits and ridiculous hairpiece. I really liked the juxtaposition of character in his persona, his evil agenda and his warm Southern drawl. It made for a very interesting character.

If none of this makes this film sound worth watching at least once, then maybe it's not really your thing. But I have one more thing. This movie is on my list of Magic Movies:  films that, in spite of all reason or logic, compel me to watch them over and over. Films that take me away, much like a good book where, for at least a little while, and let you forget where you are and get caught up in the action.

IMDb gives The Fifth Element 7.6 stars. An average, lackluster film as best. I give the film 9 stars.