Of all the movies I have ever seen, there is only one that I actively disliked upon first seeing it, but later came to regard it as one of my all-time favorites. That movie is The Fifth Element, Luc Besson’s whackadoodle space opera that is either the best movie ever, worst movie ever, or best worst movie ever, depending on whom you ask. This is a polarizing film, and I kind of see why: it’s garish, unhinged and over the top, and it hits you without much warning, especially if you approached it with Besson’s previous movies as context. And while it’s perhaps unfair to judge movies based on what you expect to happen in them, it certainly happened with me the first time I saw The Fifth Element, and afterwards asked my wife as we left the theatre, “What the hell was that?”
The story takes place in the 23rd century, as a planet-sized, malevolent entity is hurtling toward Earth, the capital of the Federated Territories. A lumbering, armor-clad alien race known as the Mondoshawans possess a living weapon capable of repulsing this great evil, but they are intercepted on their way back to Earth by shapeshifting space orcs known as Mangalores who are themselves in the employ of a southern-fried kajillionaire industrialist named Zorg, who is in turn acting on behalf of this giant evil force. Still with us? Great. Because when the military scrapes up what (very) little remains of the Monodshawan ambassador and feed it into a genetic recompiler, out comes a lithe, orange-haired woman named Leeloo who possesses infinite genetic knowledge and ability. She’s the living weapon people keep talking about, but she escapes into a flying taxicab piloted by ex-special forces hero Korben Dallas, meets with an absent-minded priest named Cornelius and is supposed to meet …you know what? Trying to explain this thing is like trying to explain a tornado of confetti. You just have to see it to believe it. Basically, take a race against time to find an ultimate weapon to save the planet from an ultimate evil, mix in a love story with an alien girl who is trying to understand how she fits into humanity, set the whole thing to EUROPE and dial it up to 11.
For those who thought they knew what Besson was capable of by watching his earlier, grittier, darker and more straightforward fare, The Fifth Element is a shocking departure. When you learn that he first wrote this when he was 16, you don’t doubt it for a second. This is the kind of story that only a bored French teenager with cinematic pretensions and a fondness for legendary graphic novelist Jean “Mobius” Giraud could have come up with. By the time Besson got his movie made, he enlisted the help of Mobius as well fellow comic artist Jean-Claude Mézières (whose work, Valerian, Besson would later adapt in 2017 into a space epic that makes the Fifth Element look like a training video in comparison) to create a set of unforgettable visuals bolstered by some of the most outrageous and memorable costume design ever put to screen by fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.
The whole thing is a hyperkinetic, technicolor fantasy that seems to go in a half-dozen different directions at once, and often feels like it’s going to fall apart at the seams, especially if you are looking for something a little more dialed back. It helps to appreciate French farce, as this movie draws heavily from that tradition and ultimately comes off as one of the least Hollywood movies ever pitched as a summer blockbuster. It’s got karate fights with Milla Jovovich and gun battles with Gary Oldman and crazy chases with Bruce Willis and conversations between Ian Holm and weird aliens, sure. But it’s also got Tiny Lister as president of the galaxy, blue techno-opera singers, keyhole-spoofing muggers who can’t stand still, the notion that McDonald’s will still be around in the 23rd century, remote-controlled cockroaches, a major scene inexplicably set within a colossal trash collectors’ strike, and the most absurdly oversexed talk-show host in the galaxy, Ruby Rhod.
Rhod’s entrance is where the movie turns from just plain weird to fullbore WTF in a few short, glorious minutes. When I first saw the movie, it’s where I threw up my hands and quit pretending to know what this movie was about. But in the dozens of times I’ve watched it since, it’s a signature scene I look forward to because it’s just so damned bonkers and so damned funny, and so damned forward, and so damned Fifth Element. The movie’s thematic zenith is supposed to be near the end, after a pretty awesome fight/music scene that involves Leeloo taking out a host of Mangalore henchmen with moves she learned from watching Bruce Lee videos all set to music that is impossible to sing with a human voice. It ends with an injured Leeloo so dumbstruck by all the violence around her that she wonders why life is even worth saving. Of course, Korben tells her he loves her, and love saves the day because love always saves the day. Yawn.
The moment of truth is a solid half-hour earlier, when Chris Tucker shows up with the most phallic hairstyle known to man, sexually harasses an entire flight crew, engages in pre-launch coitus with a libidinously overwhelmed flight attendant, and somehow convinces us that in this world, that’s okay. It shouldn’t be. It really shouldn’t be. But somehow, there you are, laughing and shaking your head at what is surely the most insane five minutes of Chris Tucker’s career. But if anything, this scene is the purest expression of what Besson was after with this movie: a story that followed his every flight of fancy, broke every rule of Hollywood, did not really care of anybody could follow it, and somehow won over a whole lot of people anyway. Supergreen? Supergreen.