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How can you tell when a film is great? This is a difficult question to answer because ultimately, if the movie is any good, each one of us can experience it in very different ways, each with our own bias. To me, films are such an involving experience as they provide a rich visual, audio, intellectual, and sometimes cultural experience that is wholly satisfying. When experiencing movies, each one of us does it differently. Some people care much about the performances while others care about the writing or the story. Some, yours truly included, can be delighted by the visuals and sounds and music a film offers on top of adequate performances and writing. This is one point that differentiates me often from many of my friends: i can really, really get enraptured by the visuals and sounds of a movie to the point that i can easily excuse a silly story, cliched writing and uneven acting. Another side of what can be qualified as a testament to the quality of a film is if it provided you with memorable moments and characters. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, but it can still stand the test of time and be something you remember fondly oftentimes.
To me, The Fifth Element is such a film. Recently re-released on DVD by Columbia TriStar (the film division of Sony) as a Special Edition, i got the opportunity to rewatch this movie and fall in love with it all over again. The new DVD is fantastic and contains reference-quality audio and video (thanks to Superbit processing), and great supplements. Even if you had the previous version of the film on DVD, sell it, give it, do whatever you want with it, but do get the latest one as it is well worth the upgrade.
Anyone who has seen the movie would agree that the story is somewhat silly, the writing is cliched at times, and the acting is certainly uneven. However, in spite of all of this, the movie does have a undeniable quality that makes it great and memorable. One outstanding performance, absolutely stunning visuals including a bold view of the world in the 23rd century that has been meticulously designed and photographed, and characters and moments you will most likely remember for the rest of your life, all together create a movie that is more wonderful than the sum of its parts. Director Luc Besson created something that is close to being the ultimate Space opera with a great mix of action, science fiction, comedy all packaged with genuine originality.
Every 5,000 years, Evil emerges in the universe and attempts to destroy all life. An alien species has engineered a super being called the Fifth Element to defeat it in the 23rd century when it is to come back. In an ultra modern New York City, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is a retired Army Major who drives his cab around the city. One day, Leello (Milla Jovovitch), the Fifth Element, literally crashes into his cab and Korben decides to help her. He will join forces with Priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) and the ultra outrageous Radio personality and host Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) against Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), a mega industrialist who works with Evil and attempts to foil the Fifth Element's plans.
The story is fairly simplistic and full of holes, but who cares. Plus, supposedly, it was written by Luc Besson himself while he attended high-school. So i guess the immaturity of the script can be excused somewhat. In spite of that flaw, the characters are all lovable. Bruce Willis performs his signature role here of the tough action hero who also has a lot of heart. There is nothing groundbreaking here, but he always does this type of characters well. Milla Jovovitch oscillates between greatness and cheesiness, conveying the fragile and infant-like side of her character fairly well while the ultimate-weapon-supreme-being part is rather hard to believe. She is gorgeous and has daring outfits to fit her character. Gary Oldman is his usual badness and like Bruce Willis performs it well, as usual. The real gold in this movie however from the point of view of performances is Chris Tucker. He is pure dynamite and should have been nominated for an Oscar for a best supporting role. He is outrageous, quick, funny and one of the most memorable characters of the film. One could argue that he is the best written character of the movie too, but given the uneven quality of the writing for all the other characters and the fact that he is the comic relief (not often the best written character in a story), i can only believe that Chris Tucker is mainly responsible for how Ruby is on screen. Finally, another memorable character in the movie is the Diva who is sure to impress anyone. She is a blue alien creature with a voice straight from heaven. She sings the Il Dolce Suono aria from the Opera Lucia di Lammermoor by composer Gaetano Donizetti. That particular scene is one of the highlights of the movie.
As soon as the movie starts, one thing will strike you right away: it is gorgeous, and there is an attention to design that is amazing. Everything is so lush and detailed and ornate, and the design Vision spans the entire spectrum of life in the 23rd century. The fashion has been created by famed French Haute-Couture designer Jean-Paul Gaultier who is famous in the US for the cone-bra that Madonna wore once. He worked on several Almodovar movies such as Kika and the recent Bad Education. One of his most memorable efforts must be the work he did on Peter Greenaway's visually stunning and disturbingly decadent The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover.
Another strong point in the movie is the overall architecture of buildings, interior design, and space ships, all created by famed French graphic artists Jean 'Moebius' Giraud and Jean-Claude Mezieres. Moebius in particular is renowned in the comic book industry for having created the Heavy Metal comic magazine, which spawned two movies. The design of New York City is stunning, conveying decay and grandeur at the same time. The city is even taller than it is now with Central Park soaring at 250 feet, and an elevated Statue Of Liberty. Air-vehicles (a la Blade Runner) come and go everywhere creating a dizying and busy atmosphere. The designs are fundamentally retro, with more than a hint of Art Deco at every corner, but remain completely modern. Phloston Paradise, a resort ship for a planet of beaches with its own opera house, is arresting. The big things are very beautiful, but there are also many small details. For example, cigarettes have very long filters and a small portion of Tobacco.
Last but not least, the scoundtrack by Eric Sera plays an important role throughout the movie and is quite wonderful. Sera is a long-time collaborator of director Luc Besson and the two work wonders together. the score complements the movie in almost every respect, providing lush instrumentations and highly recognizable melodies.
In other technical areas, the movie shines pretty much universally. The special effects are first rate, and the cinematography, with many geometric themes repeated throughout the movie (circles and rectangles) and a "sunset" color palette (shades of blue and orange) add to the overall design to make this movie extremely appealing visually. The editing is wonderful and pays attention to all this richness on screen when needed, and whizzes by during heart pumping action sequences.
The Fifth Element remains to this day the most expensive movie ever produced outside of Hollywood and it shows in its overall visual and sonic quality. It was money well spent, all the way. It may have many things against it, but it overcomes them with ease once the movie is considered in its entirety. It is quirky, wholly original, full of memorable characters and moments. It looks beautiful with an incredible attention to design throughout and great special effects and color schemes. And finally, it sounds marvelous, with a rich and enveloping score that you will definitely remember. This film is easily one of my favorite movies even if it is not one of the best movies i have ever seen. There is something immediately approachable to its themes, humor, characters, that makes it original and endearing. It's a movie that is a whole lot of fun to watch and which i guarantee you will remember years after the credits have rolled off the screen.
Luc Besson has a knack for making movies that are stylish and lovable. I highly recommend some of his other efforts such as the classics The Big Blue and Leon, The Professional (also recently available on DVD as another great Superbit special edition). The American audience also fell in love with La Femme Nikita so it might be worth a check too. I personally did not really love that movie. Luc Besson is one of the most talented French directors working today, and although he has only directed seven movies since he debuted in 1983, many of them are memorable. He has been focusing on producing in the past few years (1999's The Messenger: Joan Of Arc is his last movie so ar) but he has a new film in the works for 2006: Arthur And The Minimoys.
- Laurent Hasson