Directed by Luc Besson,
1997, starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich and Chris
Tucker, story by Luc Besson, music by Eric Serra, costumes by
Jean-Paul Gaultier, production designer, Dan Weil, 105 minutes.
By Carter B. Horsley
This parody of blockbuster sci-fi and adventure
films is exuberantly casual in its throwaway of good material.
It is like a rapid-fire comedian who steps on his own great jokes,
forgetting, or not knowing, to pause for the laughter.
It is oddly paced, beginning slowly in an archaeological
dig in Egypt in 1914 where the threat of apocalyptic destruction
every 5,000 years is hieroglyphically discovered as well as four
abstractly carved stones representing the four elements that are
whisked away by relatively non-aggressive, bronzed, horse-shoe-like
aliens with tiny insect heads who land and depart in what one
critic has described as a rutabaga spaceship. The film then
jumps ahead to New York for the next 5,000-year anniversary, the
year 2214, where Bruce Willis is a driver of a Red-Grooms-like
air-taxi in a vertiginous cityscape.
Willis apparently was formerly some space jockey/agent
who has fallen on bad times, but is recruited by the dolt of a
president of the Federation to find "The Fifth Element,"
a supreme being who can ward off the imminent arrival of evil
forces bent on destroying the earth with the help of Zorg, a local
madman played with Southern accent and much relish by Gary Oldman.
The Fifth Element, we are told by a priest
who has been entrusted with this special knowledge, is a perfect
being who when mixed with the other four conventional elements
of earth, fire, water and air, can defend life and fight evil.
The four stones, representing the four elements, had been handed
down to him by other priests in the past.
The Fifth Element is a orange-coifed woman
played by Milla Jovovich. She is recreated genetically by scientists
from part of a limb that had been cut off from one of the aliens.
She escapes from her birthing chamber in the lab by jumping off
one of the mile-high-or-so buildings and crashing through the
roof of Willis's cab that had been apparently cruising for fares
at about the 200-story level.
The chase that ensues through these inflated
canyons is the highlight of the film. It is a spectacular descent
and spin through a Post-Modernist redeveloped New York that is
as thrilling as the hallucinogenic trip at the end of 2001. This
cityscape is an awesome marvel of special effects as the Willis
cab darts through what seems like hundreds of levels of intersecting
air traffic in the city's still narrow streets, finally reaching
a major level of fog that raises unanswered questions as to how
high this city really is.
While this cityscape is clearly modeled on
an illustration that appeared on the cover of a popular handbook,
King's, of New York at the start of the 20th Century,
it recalls the urban cliffs in Bladerunner, only one of
many references in this movie to other famous films of the genre
such as 2001, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc and others.
The sequence through this almost Edwardian
skyscraper space, replete with McDonalds, is amazing, not for
its retro architecture or ungainly vehicles, but for its complexity.
It is a chase through an electron microscope of infinite resolution
and surely one of the most remarkable feats of special effects
yet. It moves instantly to the top of film chase lists and it
also will calm the heart of anxious passengers in the back of
contemporary cabs in what they once thought was heavy traffic.
At this point in the film, the viewer has been
revitalized. The beginning tempo while slow was traditional, but
the initial goofiness of the look of the plodding aliens, which
bear a Pomodoro sculptural look of burnished, wet bronze with
dark accents, was off-putting, neither inspiring nor fearsome
nor, most importantly, wondrous.
The New York of 2214, however, is a jolt: the
preservationists have joined forces with the developers and have
filled the sky with parapets and skywalks and cornices and deep
fenestration patterns and spires and the like, recalling the painted
fantasy city of Erastus Salisbury Field, a primitive 19th
Century American painter.
It is a city that begs to be explored. One
wants to browse, shop windows and the like.
Unfortunately, the movie, more concerned with
humans than mere buildings, moves on quickly.
Hopefully, the director, Luc Besson whose most
famous previous film was the exciting La Femme Nikita, has
backed up the cityscape images and three-dimensional computer
data and can use them more extensively in other movies, sequels
The movie's pace ebbs a bit as Willis falls
in love with his scantily-clad and bruised passenger who speaks
some universal language that sounds a bit like Swahili and which
takes about a minute and a half to announce her name, that Willis
shortens to Leeloo. LeeLoo possesses extraordinary learning powers
and is a marvelous warrior(ess). Milla Jovovich portrays her with
a precocious and alluring manner but her acting skills are quite
remarkable when she comes out of a very cold and very long shower
and is the best shivering actress in film history, even evoking
some tenderness out of laconic, but smitten Willis.
The plot thickens when the bad Mangolore, aliens
who look like they have descended from the Creature From the Blue
Lagoon, destroy the Mondoshawan aliens we had met in 1914 who
were on their way to rescue earth. Meanwhile a giant sphere of
lava is speeding towards earth and Zorg is up to no good with
his cellophane helmet unable to contain occasional streams of
blood down his skull.
Mayhem ensues, of course.
Willis is recommissioned as an agent and goes
off to recover the stolen four stones to empower Leeloo to save
the world. He encounters a drag queen talk show host, Ruby Rhod,
played by Chris Tucker, who proceeds to steal the movie. While
there are nice bits of humor throughout the film, the audience
at opening day, May 10, 1997, at the Sony Theater on Broadway
between 67th and 68th Streets did not get hysterical until a few
minutes after Tucker's appearance and then twittered at his every
appearance. While the film has problems with its timing, Tucker
pulls off his over-the-top miming and gagging and one-liners,
many of which are so fast as to be unintelligible, so well that
he is a runaway steamroller and should probably win an Oscar for
supporting actor. His bit, and it is not short, is comparable
only to Peter Sellars's crazy, cat-loving doctor in The Wrong
Box as inspired lunacy. He, and the director, and the
film editor, achieve that delicious plateau of hysteria with Ruby
Rhod that is just plain silly, just plain rollicking fun, although
at least one critic, Rex Reed of The New York Observer, was not
amused, adding that the movie, which opened the Cannes Film Festival
in France this year, was a "bomb."
Willis et al must attend a concert given
by a diva, played by Inva Mulle Tschaki who sings an aria from
Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor that is strange,
spellbinding and scary, yet magical and probably the finest opera
segment in films since Diva. The aria she sings,
decked in fluorescent blue tubing and wearing a headdress handed
down by the monster in Alien, is exotic and very, very
beautiful and completely at odds with everything in the movie.
Instead of tires screeching in the midst of a madcap chase,
it is an cooling tonic quenching the volcanic foolery of Ruby
Rhod and the various villains. It is an exquisitely abrupt interlude that is like
the cosmic pulse of a bright Mark Rothko painting, thankfully
This very expensive and flamboyant film is
original in many details despite its obvious pandering to the
violence of the genre. It has abundant humor and is immensely
entertaining. While flawed, it will be a classic, or, at least,
make a lot of converts to opera.