30 Years at the Movies, Part 2

30 Years at the Movies, Part 2

Posted by Sean Stangland on Fri, 01/09/2009 - 22:53

"The Fifth Element"
Directed by Luc Besson
Screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Released May 9, 1997

The first poster for "The Fifth Element" was intriguing. It didn't even give the title. It featured white letters on a star field, reading: "IT MU5T BE FOUND." The 5 appeared to be on fire. (Click here for the image.) I vaguely remember reading about the film in a Starlog or an Empire at the Waldenbooks in Woodfield, and I still had no idea what the heck the movie was; I guess that was the idea.

When TV ads appeared, they trumpeted one critic's bold quote: "THE 'STAR WARS' OF THE '90s!" In 1997, a quote like that really meant something; just two years later, it would have seemed more like a threat than a promise. That quote promised unparalleled visual effects, lovable characters and classic storytelling. And that's more or less what "The Fifth Element" delivered -- in addition to truly absurd comedy, outlandish costume and set design, and a manic pace that almost overwhelms.

I was working at the Suncoast Motion Picture Company at Randhurst mall that summer, which meant I was fat (from eating Supersized Triple Quarter Pounders twice a week) and happy (from working at a video store, duh). The night "Fifth Element" came out, former bathrobe-wearing Hersey High School student Kyle Thiessen and I rushed to close up the store after 9 so we could make it over to the General Cinemas for the 10 p.m. show. We had this giant cardboard cutout of Darth Vader in the store, and I would inevitably do a double-take every night while lowering the gate. ("Is someone still in there?") After that, we had to drive over to the bank next to the theater and deposit the night's profits.

We made it in time, undoubtedly sat through trailers for "Men in Black," "Contact" and some movie about a boat that looked like it would never turn a profit, and then scoffed when we saw the sixth name listed in the credits: LUKE PERRY. Our indignation was soon proven wrong, as Dylan McKay's brief appearance in the scene that sets up the entire movie turned out to be very funny.

All of "The Fifth Element" is very funny, and it's funny at pretty much every level. The writing is funny, but it wouldn't be nearly as successful without the casting (Tiny Lister as the President; Gary Oldman as French Redneck Hitler; Bruce Willis as Blond Bruce Willis), the ridiculous costumes (courtesy of Madonna fave Jean-Paul Gaultier), and the inexplicably great performance from Milla Jovovich as everyone's favorite orange-haired, bandage-wearing alien, Leeloo. Director Luc Besson, who was Jovovich's husband from 1997 to 1999, apparently found the one way to make his bride a good actress: have her speak in gibberish.

But Besson himself, and editor Sylvie Landra, are the best comedians in the picture. The thing moves like a runaway train, and scenes are intercut to maximize the jokes. Forward to the 2:06 mark of this scene for an example of what I'm talking about:

Besson and Landra do that throughout the movie. Some sequences, like the one above, have two completely different sets of intercut scenes within them. A later scene aboard the shuttle to Fhloston Paradise is a little intercut marvel all to itself, as the story is almost completely abandoned for two minutes. I know, I know -- Besson and Landra didn't exactly reinvent cinema by intercutting scenes in a sci-fi comedy, but it's one of the little extra touches that make it special.

The movie's big setpiece comes about 90 minutes in, and is probably the point where viewers decide whether they love it or hate it:

You can guess which side I came down on.

I haven't mentioned Chris Tucker yet. One film magazine named his character, intergalactic DJ Ruby Rhod, the most annoying in film history. A lot of people agree. I think Tucker is hilarious in this movie, especially when you consider the parts he's played in "Friday" and "Rush Hour." Ruby Rhod is not a South Central pothead or a street-savvy L.A. cop. He's as flamboyant as they come, and manages to be the most absurd thing in a movie full of absurdities. If you find him annoying, that may very well be Besson's point; Korben Dallas (Willis) sure can't stand him.

On a storytelling level, "The Fifth Element" breaks no new ground. But conceptually and tonally, it's something quite different from your typical American sci-fi epic. And that's because it's not an American movie -- it was financed primarily by the French studio Gaumont, and remains one of the most expensive productions ever mounted by a European film company. Sony distributed it in America, where it grossed a disappointing $63.8 million. It did pick up $200 million in the foreign market, and has of course found a huge audience on video and on cable, where it seems to air about every 30 minutes.

And that's part of why I love "The Fifth Element" -- Americans have embraced this absolutely insane French movie that I thought would be incomprehensible to most people. I'm glad I'm not the only crazy one.

. . .

Previous entries in this series:
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"

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