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The Fifth Element: Guilty pleasure or cinematic genius?

November 6, 2011

I like the movie The Fifth Element. Luc Besson made it in 1997. It’s a crazy hybrid of a movie. A sci-fi action adventure with slapstick comedy, social satire, high fashion and religious redemption. It’s weird mix of stuff that hangs together thanks to the extraordinary production design, bravura editing and strong presence from the leads.

In no particular order what I like about The Fifth Element:

Mila Jovovich, our guardian angel with tangerine hair.

Milla Jovovich. Milla was one of the new, or practically new, that dazzled audiences in the breakthrough movie year of 1997 (see below).  The combination of her crazy orange hair and bizarre accent—part Kiev, part Kinshasa—distracts from the fact that she’s not much of an actress portraying even  less of a person. She’s the idea of an action heroine rather than a real character. Compare Leeloo to what I think is her breakout role, Fangora, in Dummy. A Goth rocker wannabe who transforms herself into a punk-klezmer showstopper. That’s a character.

Society of Klutzes. Everyone in this future is slightly inept and nothing works as it should. Priests, generals, gangsters, cruise ship officers and even the President don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s a good thing civilization has a guardian angel.

Destroying life as we know it is just another deal.

Mr. Zorg. Except for the cornball accent, Gary Oldman’s Zorg is a spot on portrait of the kind of executive who wrecked the economy in 2007 and got away with it. Zorg, like those villainous miscreants is so focused on short-term gain he cannot see the horrific catastrophe that will come right after his payday.

Lee Evan. The brilliant physical comedian plays aptly-named Fog, the lowly officer left in charge of the space cruise liner when its under attack by over weaponed ogre-like mercenaries. Wearing short pants and a silly hat, he’s less commanding than Gopher on The Love Boat, and even more out of his depth. Have you seen Funny Bones? Download it immediately. Lee Evan is amazing in it.

Chris Tucker as Rhubi Rod, the gayest hetero in the galaxy

Action Hero Sidekick as Screaming Queen is one of the inventions that makes this film so original. Rhubi Rod, the silky smooth hipster radio host who likes to wear Gautier evening gowns proves he’s straight but is still the gayest man ever committed to film. His flamboyance and insecurity, as portrayed by Chris Tucker, make a perfect foil to steely, resolved Bruce Willis. Think of John Wayne and Walter Brennan in a gun fight against a dozen black hats. Now imagine Walter in low cut velvet gown, shrieking like a little girl and trying not to touch anything.

Design. The greatest challenge to making science fiction is creating a plausible design. It has to look its grown out of the present we know. 5E’s New York City is recognizable as New York City. It’s gotten denser and taller. There are no streets but the yellow cabs still make balletic mayhem in the heavy traffic. And the piles of garbage due to the sanitation workers’ strike—priceless.

Nothing says New York City like its iconic yellow cabs.

The tiny apartment of Corbin Dallas, where the refrigerator does double duty as shower, for all its technological advancement is still the kind of cramped, drab space most urban dwellers inhabit. Of course none of it is real. We know we’re looking at sets. Oddly, the most other worldly locale of the film is the opera house precisely because it is not a set. It’s the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London.

One day Grace Jones met a giant squid. The rest is cinema history.

And there’s more; like the overall campy feel of the flick as exemplified by Bruce Willis’ wig (if not his entire performance) and bravura editing of some sections such as the shuttle blast-off which shows the event from multiple points of view and achieves multiple climaxes. Besson does a lot of winking at the audience but that never gets in the way of action.

The Remarkable Year 1997 The Fifth Element is part of one of the greatest years ever for film. In 1997 we got: Titanic, LA Confidential, Good Will Hunting, As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Wag The Dog, Kundun, and Boogie Nights. As well as Gattaca, Men in Black, and Starship Troopers. It was a breakout year for many established actors—Helen Hunt, Julianne Moore, James Cromwell, Minnie Driver and Joan Cusack. Russell Crowe, Greg Kinear, Matt Damon, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck and Judi Dench became stars. Julie Christie, Peter Fonda, Robert Forster, Burt Reynolds and Gloria Stewart became stars again. Robin Williams beat Forster, Reynolds, Kinear and Anthony Hopkins for his Oscar. Kim Bassinger and Pam Grier, as well as Fonda and Forster, gave the best performances of their careers. Shirly Knight was wonderful in As Good As It Gets.  also won that year.

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