Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry, Brion James, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, Lee Evans, Charlie Creed-Miles, Tricky (Adrian Thaws), John Neville, John Bluthal, Mathieu Kassovitz
Written by: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by: Luc Besson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity
Running Time: 126
Date: 05/07/1997

The Fifth Element (1997)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sci-Fi Dreams

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Something about the Major Summer Releases makes one think twice about the nature of cinema. Businessmen scramble to find the biggest stars, the highest budgets, the most spectacular set design, the loudest sound effects, the most outrageous special effects, the nastiest villains, the top screenwriters and directors and the biggest marketing campaign. The finished Packages are then trumpeted one at a time, beginning in March, and the overwhelmed movie public has to decide which one is the favorite.

Cinema has always been a Business, and the Business has always produced more Garbage than Art. Art is what, though? Well-developed characters? Good acting? A plot? Not necessarily. The thing that movies do best is to show us dreams. We see pictures that make us think of where we would like to be, and where we would not like to be and that makes us feel something -- either happy or sad, or afraid or exhilarated. A bunch of people talking may evoke thoughts, but not necessarily emotions. A futuristic cab driver, piloting a flying cab through many levels of traffic in mid-air, can make one think (is this where the future is really going) and feel (we're really high up -- what if we fall?).

So, the new movie The Fifth Element is a Product of Business, and it is cinema. It shows us wild things we can only imagine, and places we can only dream of. It makes us wish for things and it makes us feel exhilarated at times and afraid at times. It also jars us every once in a while with something very dumb that makes us think about the Businessmen and the Meetings they had with Writers and wondering whose fault this stupid thing is.

Bruce Willis, fast becoming one of our Great American Movie Stars, plays the cab driver, Korben Dallas. He is a typical Willis character, a fuck-up, a troublemaker -- someone who does things the loud and brassy way, rather than the cautious way. He is a former military man, trained to do all kinds of things, but too much of a loose cannon to keep around.

Now they need him to save the world. Apparently, every 5000 years, a big ball of evil energy threatens to destroy the Earth. A race of good robot aliens created a laser cannon to destroy it. It consists of four rocks representing the Four Elements, and a Divine Being, who represents Love, in the middle. The Divine Being (called Leeloo for short) is played by Milla Jovovich. An extremely beautiful and talented model/actress/singer, she has been in movies like Return to the Blue Lagoon, Kuffs, Chaplin, and Dazed and Confused. She gives the role a bit of gusto and a wide-eyed outsider feel (like Daryl Hannah in Splash). She is extremely charming, and lives up to the awe-struck stares of all the characters.

Anyway, Korben must take her to a temple in Egypt to save the world. Ian Holm plays a priest who knows the whole story, and Chris Tucker plays the very annoying DJ Ruby Rhod who comes along for the ride. (The DJ was a Bad Idea.) Gary Oldman, who worked with writer-director Luc Besson in The Professional, is the bad guy with a great name, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg, who wants to destroy the world for no seemingly good reason. He tries to explain it in one scene, but it just doesn't wash. Brion James, the great character actor from Blade Runner and The Player plays a general, and Luke Perry also appears in the movie's prologue.

The Fifth Element is that kind of movie that comes along every so often that has Stuff You've Never Seen Before. (Metropolis was such a movie, and so was Blade Runner, Batman and The Crow.) In fact, there are more than a few nods to Blade Runner in The Fifth Element, even though director Luc Besson has said he wanted to avoid them. The sets (by Dan Weil) and costumes (by Jean-Paul Gaultier) in particular are very impressive.

The editing is also very well done. Normally, in a Summer Action Picture, the editing is done very fast so that a) the audience's small attention span isn't taxed, and b) it will cover up the movie's inconsistencies. Here the editing is smooth and cleverly intercuts different scenes and dialogue for a nice effect (it reminded me a little of Orson Welles' F for Fake). There are some aliens that are computer generated in some scenes and latex rubber in other scenes. It's easy to tell the difference, now that we know what it looks like.

I was engaged for most of the time during The Fifth Element. I knew where it was going at all times, but the ride was excellent. Ms. Jovovich is very charming, although I wish we could have seen more of her in the sexy costume she wears. She's always photographed too close or cut away from too quickly to see. The filmmakers should have trusted her presence a little more.

In any case, The Fifth Element was the first Major Summer Release out of the gate, and the others are going to be less spectacular in comparison. I've now been on the tallest rollercoaster, and the others are going to be much the same without the thrill of being the first of the year.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has offered a 2015 Blu-Ray release, mastered in 4K with Dolby Atmos sound. It comes with a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes featurettes, presumably all from previous releases. It also has an optional digital copy. The movie looks and sounds as good as I've ever seen it, and fans will undoubtedly want to upgrade to this release.

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