The best science fiction films manage to create a unique world, populated with rich characters and coherent to its own logic. The Fifth Element only meets these goals partway. It creates a visually intriguing setting, but adds rudimentary characters and a fairly standard action plot.
Three hundred years in the future, Earth faces a mysterious problem. An unknown massive object has appeared in space, destroying all life it touches. When conventional weapons prove useless, one Father Cornelius (Ian Holm) believes he may have the answer. He has descended from an order that has guarded a secret for 5000 years: a weapon of ultimate good that can defeat the ultimate evil. In order to use this weapon, it is necessary to collect four stones (representing the four elements of air, fire, earth and water), along with a mysterious “fifth element”. However, gathering them may not be as easy as Father Cornelius would hope, for there are other forces at work. The industrialist Zorg (Gary Oldman) wants the stones for his own nefarious purposes, and has the resources to get what he desires.
In the midst of this conflict is thrust Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), an ex-military man, now struggling as a hovercab driver. Both fate and his government draw him together with Leeluu (Milla Jovovich), a strangely perfect humanoid alien who may hold the key to collecting and using the elements.
The world that director Luc Besson has created is original and breathtaking. In fact, it is almost worth the admission for the eye-candy alone. Though cluttered, the sets makes firm strides away from the gothic gloominess of Blade Runner, which has influenced nearly every science fiction film in the last fifteen years. The vibrant use of color in the Fifth Element is refreshing (although you can’t help but compare Leeluu’s bright orange hair with Korben’s bright orange tank top). The costumes throughout are a bit over-the-top, but interesting to look at, anyhow. The film reaches its pinnacle with the pure visual delight of its action pieces (the hovercar chase through New York traffic is particularly spectacular).
However, once establishing so thrilling a setting, the remainder of the film is somewhat of a letdown. The Korben Dallas character is, well, Bruce Willis. Aside from the throwaway “my wife left me”, there’s not much development there. As Zorg, Gary Oldman gets to chew some scenery, but he never really has much motive (other than just being evil). Leeluu has some alluring enigma, but she remains shrouded in mystery throughout the whole film, and is used more as a plot device than a character. And the characters used for comic relief (particularly the shrill talk show host Rudy Rhod (Chris Tucker)) rarely have the effect desired.
As far as the movie’s overall plot, you’ve got a MacGuffin to quest for and some villains to provide obstacles, and a few throwaway morals tacked onto the end. Your basic action movie package…no insights here. Yet, as an action film, The Fifth Element is above normal, owning many of the same stylistic touches that made Besson’s earlier works (La Femme Nikita and The Professional) such a treat to watch. Sure, there are occasional inconsistencies, and the characters are rather thin, but Luc Besson makes the best of the elements he has.
If you’re hoping for a science fiction masterpiece, you won’t get it in the Fifth Element. Go in expecting a decent action comedy with stunning visuals, and you’ll be sure to enjoy the ride.