“Father, are you sure she’s a supreme being?”
The Fifth Element easily fits my definition of a cult movie: loved by a small yet rabid fan base, unnoticed or hated by everyone else. I am certainly one of its fans. The movie is highly entertaining and the disc is a knockout, despite its lack of extras.
The Fifth Element, as a movie, places style over substance. So, perhaps it would be best if I discussed the look and sound of the disc before talking about the movie itself.
The movie is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame. After watching the widescreen version several times, then trying to watch the full-frame, I honestly cannot see how anyone could watch it; far too much of the picture is lost. (Anecdote #1. About two years ago I worked in the electronics section of a department store. A guy was looking at DVDs, and asked me what “dual-layer” meant. I explained that the disc had two layers stacked on top of each other. He kept saying “No, no, what is ‘dual-layered’?” and I explained it several times, dumbing-down the explanation more each time. Finally I discovered he wanted to know if the movie was widescreen and full-frame, because he didn’t like “missing” parts of the picture with widescreen. Sigh.) [Editor’s Note: An alert reader notified us that the full-frame version is actually open matte, not pan-and-scan, as the film was shot in Super35.] The movie’s bright colors and special effects are preserved flawlessly. I noticed no compression artifacts or color bleeding. The full color palette is properly saturated and detailed.
The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. The disc defaults to the surround track, so be sure to switch to the digital track if you have the proper equipment. The Fifth Element was the first movie I watched with my recently acquired Dolby Digital system, and it blew me away. I never knew how much I was missing. The movie makes full use of the surround channels, both with Eric Serra’s futuristic score and with sound effects. Take, for instance, Gary Oldman’s demonstration of the hand-held arsenal beginning at 47:10. One of the guns features is “replay”: after the gun successfully hits a target, it can send subsequent shots to that same position — even if fired in a different direction. Oldman hits the target, turns around, and sprays gunfire into a crowd. The bullets change direction and fly behind him to their target…and as they do, the bullet effects fly all around the viewer. The soundtrack also makes extensive use of the subwoofer channel, with frequent explosions and starship fly-bys. Two of the alien species speak in guttural tones that are also picked up by the subwoofer. While perhaps not “reference quality” (whatever that means), it is definitely a disc that will impress family and friends.
Now, on to the movie itself.
Anecdote #2. The Fifth Element was one of those movies that, when I said I hadn’t seen it, friends would say, “What, you haven’t seen [insert title here]?” I get that a lot. So several years ago I rented the VHS tape. I was rather underwhelmed. Actually, I fell asleep about fifteen minutes into the movie. I tried watching it again the next day…to the same results. Last October after I purchased my DVD player, it was one of the first discs I rented. Seeing it in its widescreen glory, I was hooked.
I think a parallel can be drawn between The Fifth Element and Alien Resurrection. Most audiences hated the Alien series’ fourth installment. Okay, granted, Joss Whedon’s script completely screws with the story and Winona Ryder is utterly miscast. But, I think the style of the movie was even more off-putting to American viewers. French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet brought European quirks and sensibilities to the design and filming technique. Accustomed to the tastes of James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, Americans were lost and confused. The same can be said of The Fifth Element.
Luc Besson is best known for directing smart action movies such as The Professional and La Femme Nikita (the inspiration for a television show of the same name, and for Point Of No Return). Though not his first picture in English, The Fifth Element was certainly Besson’s first foray into big-budget effects pictures. Digital Domain, the company co-founded by director James Cameron and effects guru Stan Winston, brought the effects to life. Digital Domain also produced the extensive computer effects of Titanic, Armageddon, and Fight Club.
The story is your typical sci-fi good-guys-must-save-the-universe yarn. The way it unfolds is anything but typical. At the beginning, we are told that every 5000 years an evil force comes to destroy life as we know it. Only the Fifth Element (a supreme being) can protect the world. This Fifth Element, in conjunction with stones representing earth, air, fire, and water, creates an awesome weapon that is the only thing that can defeat the evil menace. In 1914, the Mondashawan (a benevolent alien race) take the stones away from Earth, because they say Earth cannot protect them. Cut to 300 years later. The evil force is coming to make its 5000-year return, but the stones and the Fifth Element are nowhere to be found.
Enter Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman — Air Force One, The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and his alien cronies the Mangalores. Apparently, the Evil Force has hired Zorg to destroy the stones (never mind that if Zorg is successful, he’ll perish with the rest of Earth). As the Mondashawan attempt to ferry the stones and the Fifth Element back to Earth, their ship is ambushed by the Mangalores. The Mangalores recover the case containing the stones, only to find that it is empty. The Earth government recovers cellular material from the Fifth Element and reconstructs its body. The Supreme Being turns out to be a girl named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich — Dazed And Confused, The Messenger). Leeloo escapes from the lab and plunges into the cab of one Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis — The Sixth Sense, Pulp Fiction, the Die Hard series). Dallas wants to protect the beautiful girl, and does his best to hide her from the authorities. He takes her to Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm — Alien, Brazil, the upcoming Lord Of The Rings trilogy), who happens to be a member of a cult that has carried on the knowledge of The Fifth Element for centuries.
There’s the setup. The rest of the movie deals with the attempts to recover the stones by all the parties seeking them. The stones are in the possession of an opera singer who will be appearing at Fhloston Paradise, a luxury cruise ship orbiting a distant planet. The Earth government arranges for Korben and Leeloo to travel to the planet under the guise of a contest hosted by Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker — Dead Presidents, Jackie Brown, Rush Hour), an ultra-bizarre radio DJ. Korben and Leeloo must race against Zorg and his Mangalore soldiers to recover the stones. As I am wont to say, mayhem ensues.
The story isn’t as deep as it sounds, and often takes a back seat to the eye-catching effects and the unpredictable humor. Gary Oldman plays Zorg so over-the-top it’s hard to imagine where the top ended and the parsecs above it began. It’s remarkable how he transforms himself for every role he plays. Quite the opposite of Bruce Willis, who plays Korben Dallas just like John McClane or Butch the Boxer. Ian Holm plays Cornelius absolutely nothing like Ash the evil android from Alien. I would pity the world if its fate really were in the hands of this bumbling priest. Milla Jovovich has an unusual part to work with. It is physically demanding, and her speech progresses from a babbling ancient tongue to strangely accented English. Particularly comical is the way she repetitively sounds out the name of her identification card: “mull-teee-pahhhss.” If you find Chris Tucker’s mannerisms and voice annoying, you’ll find that his Annoying Factor has been multiplied hundred-fold. Ruby Rhod is the one part of the movie that I cannot stand. Fortunately, he has just a few scenes that are his showcase. The rest of the time, he can be safely ignored.
It’s a shame that Columbia released this disc devoid of extras. It is a first-rate movie-only disc, but it would have made a must-have special edition if they had included a commentary track, a behind the scenes documentary, and a few other goodies.
The Fifth Element is a great system showcase and an entertaining movie worthy of repeat viewings. If you enjoy sci-fi or action, I would highly recommend it as an addition to your collection.