The Fifth Element, the film directed by Luc Besson that arrived in the spring of 1997, was really two films, one much better than the other. The first is the story of an intergalactic civil war between two different races of aliens, in which everyone is after a magical MacGuffin. The second, much better movie, is a sci-fi-inflected ’90s action movie with Bruce Willis as the hero and Gary Oldman as the villain, filled with memorable one-liners.
It’s hard to find much to like in the former film, but the latter one is one of the more indelible movies of the late 1990s and among the best of Besson’s filmography.
The Fifth Element opened the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, for some reason, before landing in theaters on May 9, 1997, 25 years ago this week.
The film, based on a story purportedly written by Besson when he was a teenager, tells the story of the 23rd-century battle between aliens the Mondoshawans and Mangalores, which in description sounds like a century-old European soccer rivalry. In a plot that preceded Avengers: Infinity War by almost two decades, the future of the universe depends on being able to collect a series of stones, and everyone in the movie is after them.
Enter Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a space-age cab driver, who has graduated from riding in a cab in Pulp Fiction three years earlier to driving one. He’s drafted on a secret mission to protect and save the human-like personification of the titular “fifth element,” which can save the universe from something called “The Great Evil.” That element is a humanoid, messianic figure known as Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who is not only a world-saver but also a love interest. (Jovovich became the fourth Mrs. Besson, out of five, the year the movie was released, although they divorced in 1999).
Battling them is Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, played by Gary Oldman in one of the most entertaining villain performances of the 1990s. He’s got a ludicrous Southern accent and an even more laughable haircut, but it’s Oldman over-acting even more than he would in his Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour, 20 years later. Oldman would also turn on the accent to play the heavy in Air Force One, a few months later.
Also along for the ride are a space priest (Ian Holm) and motor-mouthed intergalactic DJ Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker, in an early film role.) Ruby is the kind of comic-relief character that tended to pop up in action movies at that time, but he could have been completely excised without the movie losing much. Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jr., known to pro wrestling fans as Zeus and known to Friday fans as Deebo, was in the film as the president of the galaxy, although he played something of a passive role.
Watching the movie over the years and again for this piece, I’ve never cared much about the film’s background and mythology, which I always found silly and plagued by mumbo-jumbo. But its look is amazing, Willis is fun in it, and his romance with Leeloo is charming if you can get past the part of her barely being able to speak until the end.
The Fifth Element made $263 million at the box office, more outside of the U.S. than in it. A sequel was rumored but never came to be. Besson would try again with something similar with 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which mostly failed, aside from a brief, wondrous sequence with Rihanna and Ethan Hawke, which recalls the best of his movie from 20 years earlier.
The Fifth Element is now streaming on Paramount+.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.