There’s no getting around the fact that The Fifth Element is a bizarre sci-fi fever dream, but somehow Luc Besson‘s daftly eccentric opus has found a wide and fervent audience. Given its frequent diversions from the traditional genre fare, why is it that The Fifth Element still captures the imaginations of viewers today?
The Blue Collar Hero
Korben Dallas, despite living in a distant future full of hover cars and space travel, holds the entirely unglamorous occupation of driving a taxicab. It’s always important to create a hero to whom the audience can relate, and that goes doubly for epic sci-fi or fantasy stories otherwise quite removed from contemporary society. And yet, Besson is not satisfied merely assigning his hero a blue collar profession. The Fifth Element is the ultimate working class science-fiction parable. The antagonist of the film is Jean-Baptiste Zorg, head of the Zorg Corporation and one of the single greatest filmic caricatures of a greedy capitalist. Zorg and Dallas are locked in the perennial struggle between the classes. Despite not ever appearing together in a scene, nor either made aware of the others presence, Zorg is able to make Dallas’ life a living hell. Much as in the real world, Zorg’s position atop the corporate hierarchy allows him to create chaos for Dallas without ever having to look him in the eye. Note, this conflict begins when Zorg’s thoughtless layoffs put Dallas out of a job.
The Fifth Element is a movie possessed of a heightened libido. The cold, hyper-technological, sterile atmosphere that we tend to see in speculative-future sci-fi is replaced with a vibrant, writhing, sexual fantasy. Milla Jovovich is introduced in bandages teasing us with about as much nudity as a PG-13 film allows. Not only that, but women in practically every service industry position (not one position, but all positions) are dressed to allure. And, one need only observe Ruby Rhod to understand that The Fifth Element is unconcerned with conservative ideals of chastity. Chris Tucker‘s frantic electro deejay seems to have evolved beyond the passe distinctions of sexual orientation, as his exceedingly feminine dress and demeanor in no way hinder his achievement of innumerable conquests with women. It’s as if Besson was extrapolating the sexual mystique of Prince for a future society.
As much as the inclusion of a blue collar hero and the acknowledgement of the universality of human sexuality keeps the movie relatable, we also demand that sci-fi transport us somewhere to which we’ve never been. It’s an extension of the drive behind actual space exploration; a sort of neo Manifest Destiny. Luckily for all of us, Besson is a master of spectacle and The Fifth Element delivers us to an entirely alien universe, even when we’re supposedly on our own planet. The effects alone on The Fifth Element cost $80 million dollars, which was record breaking at the time. In fact, The Fifth Element was, at that point, the most expensive film to be produced outside of Hollywood. Besson put those funds to good use and crafted a fiercely unique vision of the future, one that incorporates elements of ultra modern European and Asian architectural design with distinctive 90s garnishes. The action sequences are another wise investment here. The hover cab chase through the aerial streets of the city is a particular marvel in more ways than one.
A good score is not merely an accent, but instead lives and breathes as its own subsurface character. The music in The Fifth Element might as well be a Greek chorus. It travels with us through the threadline of the narrative, providing a pulse and enveloping the audience in the world of the film; a world made tactile by the industrial tones subverting the otherworldly techno flourishes. The use of music to literally expand the universe of The Fifth Element is most present in the performance of Plavalaguna. Composer Eric Serra actually goes to such lengths as to convert opera into its own extraterrestrial language with an enchanting, auto-tuned vocabulary.
So many stories, irrespective of genre, can be boiled down to the basic struggle between good and evil, and indeed, that is the fundamental narrative crux here. The Fifth Element however further simplifies the conflict. The supreme being (pure good) must arrive in a designated spot to serve as a deterrent for the malevolent dark force headed for earth. The evil is not elaborately explained, nor even designated an origin. For all intents and purposes it is a MacGuffin falling from the sky. The conflict is indeed therefore elemental; stripped down to the most rudimentary constructs. It may be that Besson did not want an overly complex plot to alienate an audience that was already wading through his peculiar, campy mis en scene, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he wrote the original script while in high school.
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