Whenever someone brings up the topic of underrated science-fiction classics, believe it or not, the first film my mind goes to is Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element.” The film opened in 1997 to somewhat mixed reviews, with many complaining about its overblown style, while several others were able to find the pure fun contained within. This was Besson going bigger than he ever had before, previously having given audiences smaller films like “La Femme Nikita” and “Leon: The Professional.” Indeed the film did have its detractors, but that didn’t stop it from being a huge success with audiences, who were able to accept it as the hugely entertaining vehicle it was always meant to be. Even 18 years later, it’s one of those films that sci-fi fans keep coming back to, but where does that staying power come from? As usual, it all starts with its bizarre and somewhat unique story.
In 2263, a dark evil has awakened in space, an evil that can only be stopped by a very specific weapon that uses four stones and a humanoid “Fifth Element.” A priest, Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), is now the current contact on Earth for an alien race that has promised to deliver the weapon in time to stop it. However, the aliens’ ship is attacked under orders from Zorg (Gary Oldman), who works for the evil. The only item recovered from the attack is a hand of The Fifth Element, which is taken to New York City and cloned into a young woman, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). After she escapes the lab, she happens to crash into the taxi of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a former member of Special Forces who takes her to see Cornelius. Eventually Korben finds himself drafted by his former CO to go on a dangerous mission to recover the stones from a secret contact. Taking Leeloo along with him, Korben goes to meet his contact, which brings about a deadly confrontation with Zorg and his henchmen, and subsequently a last-minute attempt to save the world.
On a first glance, yes, it’s a rather unusual story, but as silly and over-the-top as it gets, it turns out to be one of the film’s best elements, mixing together sci-fi, action, comedy, and even a smidgen of romance into a thrilling and unforgettable tale. In particular, the action scenes are very well done, including a floating car chase in future New York City, dazzling fight sequences, and a rather impressive shootout in the climactic confrontation. This, paired with the great story, gives you a solid piece of entertainment, for as I’ve always said, action without a solid narrative foundation doesn’t get you very far. In fact, recent action films could learn a lot from what Besson and co. accomplished here.
It’s rather amusing that one of the chief complaints about the film is its “overblown style,” for that too is one of its strongest elements. Everything from the costumes to the sets to the overall design of this futuristic society immediately grabs your attention and pulls you into this engaging tale. To say that it’s “overblown” would be to say that there is too much there or that the film overdoes it, which is simply not the case. The style here only goes to serve the film’s other essential elements, such as the characters and the multiple genres included in the narrative.
As we come to the performances, perhaps this is the one area where you may be able to find a legitimate complaint. Milla Jovovich has never been a great actress, and it’s hard to say that she does a particularly good job here, even though she does get a few of the film’s great comical moments. Bruce Willis does a fine job as Korben, though the role is not really all that demanding, and really, the less said about Chris Tucker, the better. However, by far the best performance in the film comes from the great Gary Oldman, who once again creates an unforgettable role as Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. Oldman has always been a magnificent chameleonic actor, playing an amazing range of roles like Dracula, Beethoven, Commissioner Gordon, and George Smiley, but here he seems to disappear completely into this role of a malevolent, loathsome industrialist who cares nothing for others. It’s the kind of role where, even though he’s the despicable villain, you can’t wait for him to get back on the screen again, which is the true sign of a great character.
Does the film have any particular substantial value? Perhaps not, but it is insanely entertaining, and on the basis of going the extra mile of delivering a great story and characters on top of the spectacular action sequences, it becomes a must-see for fans of science-fiction. It’s a thrilling experience that should have been hailed from the start as the marvelous actioner that it is. It’s zany, goofy, and it may leave you scratching your head once or twice, but in the end, it’s simply hard not to enjoy the immense amount of fun it delivers.
“The Fifth Element” comes to Special Edition Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of extraordinary quality. If you look hard enough, there is some slightly noticeable grain to the picture, but it does nothing to hinder what is mostly a crystal clear image. The Dolby Atmos audio is also outstanding, delivering all audio elements, from the dialogue to the score and sound effects, in perfect quality. Overall, the film has been cleaned up beautifully and simply looks and sounds the best it ever has.
The Visual Element (24 Minutes): A featurette that focuses on the design of the film, including a background of the two comic book artists who helped create it. Also includes test footage of several sets used in the film.
The Star Element (33 Minutes): A series of interviews with Bruce Wills, Milla Jovovich, and Chris Tucker in which they discuss working on the film. Also includes a collection of Jovovich’s screen tests.
The Alien Element (31 Minutes): A series of featurettes focusing on the design of the Mondoshawans, the Mangalores, Picasso, and the Strikers (from a deleted scene). Also includes screen tests for all but Picasso.
The Fashion Element (13 Minutes): A featurette that focusses on the costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Also includes screen tests.
The Diva (26 Minutes): An interview with actress Maiwenn in which she discusses the character. Also includes screen tests and outtakes.
The Digital Element (10 Minutes): A featurette focusing on the film’s many visual effects.
Imagining The Fifth Element (5 Minutes): A featurette that looks at designing certain aspects of the film.
The Elements of Style (5 Minutes): Another featurette focusing on Gaultier’s costumes.
Fact Track: An interesting collection of trivia that can be played during the film.
Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” is a dazzling, funny, and exciting sci-fi actioner that features unforgettable characters and a thrilling story, making this one of the most underrated science-fiction classics around. Many have already realized this, but its detractors should most definitely give it a second look, for then they might finally see why the film has remained such a hit with fans for nearly two decades. Now that it’s being re-released in this outstanding special edition Blu-ray, packed with several neat special features (about two and half hours’ worth), there’s really no better time to revisit it.
Now available on Special Edition Blu-ray.
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