The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)

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This week the Central Cinema, home of Seattle’s most adventurous double features, revives one of the key oddities of the late 1990s, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, as unstable a collection of genres, tones and actors as you’re likely to find in the mainstream cinema. 300 years from now, Bruce Willis, bleached but otherwise comfortably within his Die Hard star persona, is an ex-military agent who has the key to saving the universe fall into his lap (almost literally). That key is the by definition perfect form of Milla Jovovich, a genetically supreme being that is the fifth part of a machine some aliens have installed in the Egyptian desert as a device to defeat the periodically occurring onslaught of Evil, which takes the form of a planet sized black hole that devours everything like Orson Welles in Transformers the Movie. Because of Luke Perry, we’re not as prepared for Evil’s arrival as we should be and a bumbling priest (played by Ian Holm at the peak of the bumbling priest phase of his career) is the only one who knows what’s really going on: Evil has allied itself with Gary Oldman (playing Ross Perot with Hitler’s hair) to steal the magic rocks that make up the rest of the Milla-machine from an alien opera singer. And Chris Tucker is there playing Prince if Prince was really, really loud.

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Well aware of its own silliness, but nevertheless not stooping to the knowing campiness that plagues so many contemporary attempts at combining the epic with a sense of humor, The Fifth Element is a truer comic book adaptation than anything Marvel has produced over the last decade. Besson began writing it when he was a teenager, 25 years before its release, and it feels like a universe that has lived with its creator for a very long time indeed. Even at over two hours long, the film feels much too short, like a five hour story compressed to a manageable running time. As world-building this is an asset: sci-fi and fantasy films are always better when they’re lived in, when they don’t bother to explain themselves. But dramatically it shortchanges the key relationship of the film: the universe hinges on the Willis-Jovovich pairing, but because there’s so much going on (and maybe because those two great actors’ star personae are so fundamentally incompatible), that relationship is never built to the point of the believable love story it needs to be (because, you know, The Fifth Element is Love).

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We can take it on faith that Willis instantly falls in love with her, because she is a perfect being. Every man in the film that sees her gazes in awe, like David Foster Wallace’s trance-inducing PGOAT. But the relationship between the two is an oddity: more protective than lustful, Willis seems torn between playing the relationship as romantic or fatherly (the 20 year age gap between him and Jovovich doesn’t help), either would work dramatically, but splitting the difference means neither work. Of all Besson’s heroines, from Nikita to Lucy, Jovovich’s Leeloo has the least agency, subsumed within the need for Willis the Star to play The Action Hero, she gets but one scene of badassery (learning kung fu via computer screen, anticipating The Matrix) followed by half a film of cowering with fear (which is how Jovovich plays angst: her performances for Besson are intensely, physically emotional in stark contrast to the more knowing, cooler work she’ll later do with Paul WS Anderson. Interestingly, there’s an extreme close-up shot of one of her amazing eyeballs in this movie, a shot that will become the defining image of the Resident Evil series). The regressiveness of the relationship is at odds with the vibrant and goofy ultra-modern universe Besson has created. A film that resolutely denies all the imperatives of plot logic falls apart at the end because of emotional incoherence. A younger male lead and more commitment to romance-building, or conversely a more explicitly familial (and therefore less creepy) relationship would have made all the difference between a fun little movie and something truly great, like, say, Jupiter Ascending. But it’s all worth it to see just how many ways Besson can, with all the freedom of the future, contrive to stuff people into boxes.

The Fifth Element plays Friday through Monday and Wednesday at the Central Cinema.

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