Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
As the final space-opera themed Throwback Thursday before CONvergence next week, I wanted to take a moment to shine a light on one of my favorite films, Luc Besson’s 1997 extravaganza The Fifth Element. Owing a huge debt to the production design of Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and Jean-Claude Mézières, this film was a European comic come to life. I’ve gone on record before as to how much I love the European-themed aesthetic of Heavy Metal magazine, which featured quite a bit of Giraud’s storytelling over the years, and that summer of 1997 I was thrilled to see The Fifth Element and have that style walk out of the comics and on to the giant screen. I typically revisit this film about once a year. The Fifth Element is one of my favorite sci-fi films for sheer joy and boldness.
On the big screen is the best way to see this film. There’s so much detail packed into every frame that you might miss things popping up in the background. Not to mention the bright colors of the color palette they used. Even in the dimly lit underworld of New York City, it still feels bright. If Blade Runner is the neo-noir version of sci-fi, The Fifth Element is the bright, pop-filled Yang to the preceding Yin. The story through-line is pretty basic (ideas were taken from Besson’s childhood), about a galaxy-devouring evil that needs to be stopped by a legendary fifth element. Enter our hero, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a former special forces major now taxi-cab driver (vibes of the Harry Canyon segment from Heavy Metal seem appropriate) who is thrust into the intrigue when the newly resurrected Fifth Element, Leeloo (a delightfully off-center Milla Jovovich), crashes through the roof of his cab. Double crosses and triple crosses aplenty in a retro-future New York City landscape all happen before our heroes even board a spaceflight to a tropical planet getaway.
The plot does make sense, but there’s so much fun to be had just by unbuckling your brain and letting the film wash over you. You might experience sensory overload, but it’s worth it. Besides the cool, know-it-all Willis, and ultimate weapon Jovovich, we also get a scenery-chewing Gary Oldman as a human servant to the ultimate evil, Ian Holm as a hard luck priest, and an unhinged Chris Tucker as television personality Ruby Rhod. Critics were split on whether Tucker was the best or worst thing about the film. I err on the side of acceptance. He’s so over the top that he fits right in to everything going on around him. It’s a fast-talking side of him that he parlayed into the Rush Hour films. To give you an idea of how ridiculous this film is, Tommy Lister is the president of Earth. If you’re old enough you might remember him as the bully Deebo in Friday, or if you’re really old, the evil wrestler Zeus in Hulk Hogan’s bid for Hollywood glory in the wrestling classic No Holds Barred (note the use of “classic” here is ironic, but if you love the film, I would love to hear from you). You will either find this incredibly funny or incredibly annoying.
I always try to go with the world-building universe a creator has conjured up. Everything is so over the top that nothing feels out of place in this film. When a cigarette has a longer filter than tobacco, and a cute little aqua-colored alien pet is hiding in a desk ready to come out on command for attention, this is the type of sci-fi opus that I envisioned when I was a kid. From the previously mentioned production design, to costume design (even if Willis’s orange top needs to go), to creature design, the creativity flowing out of this film is astonishingly high.
The Fifth Element does have a certain flair to it, with a central conceit being that even if we as humans have an incredibly high threshold for causing pain and destruction, love is mightier than that and can overcome all. While Besson’s track record lately has been incredibly hit or miss, The Fifth Element gives me high hopes for his latest space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which opens the end of July. The color palette seems a little more restrained, but the grandeur and wonder feels like it would be right at home with The Fifth Element.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.