Directed by French powerhouse Luc Besson, 1997’s The Fifth Element is a masterpiece of imagination and cinematic storytelling.
Co-written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen from a story that Besson began working on when he was only 16, it stars Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, and Milla Jovovich in a terrific tale of intergalactic shenanigans.
Primarily set in the 23rd century, the flick’s central plot revolves around the pending doom of planet Earth, and the unlikely hero of Korben Dallas (Willis), a taxi driver and former special forces major who is forced to step up after a rather unique young woman and the key to Earth’s survival (Jovovich) literally falls into his cab.
Reportedly, Besson originally wanted to shoot the film in France, however suitable facilities could not be found. Instead, filming took place in Mauritania and London, with filming primarily taking place at Pinewood Studios. Comics artists Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières – whose books provided inspiration for parts of the film – were hired for production design, while costume design was handled by non other than Jean-Paul Gaultier.
With the pieces set to bring Besson’s vision to life, all that now remained was to delight audiences and critics. But would they buy in to Besson’s world, or would The Fifth Element be seen as just another inconsequential science fiction romp? The director waited with bated breath...
In the 23rd century, the universe is threatened by a dark evil that surfaces every 5,000 years. The only hope for mankind is the ‘Fifth Element’, which was removed from Earth for its own protection along with four elemental stones that are the key to destroying the dark threat. As its alien caretakers attempt to bring the Fifth Element back to stop the evil, they are destroyed, as, seemingly, is their precious cargo.
Meanwhile, in New York City, taxi driver and former elite commando Major Korben Dallas is interrupted in his daily grind by the surprise crash landing into his cab of the beautiful Leeloo (Jovovich), a young and disorientated women he is compelled to protect.
When priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) reveals to Dallas that Leeloo is the Fifth Element, the trio begin an adventure to track down the four stones that, when combined with Leeloo’s power, will save the Earth and defeat the vile threat.
The evil however is not alone, and with the help of scheming Earth industrialist, Zorg (Oldman), it is bent on fulfilling its terrible purpose...
Earning more than $263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget, The Fifth Element was a financial success. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive European film ever made, and remained the highest-grossing French film at the international box office until the release of The Intouchables in 2011.
While the flick attracted a store of positive reviews, critics were often polarised. Some described it as indulgent and over the top, while others applauded it as an elaborate sci-fi extravaganza.
All of these points are fair, and ultimately it comes down to whether or not you buy into the way its various elements (sorry) are woven together. For me, it is a big fat ‘yes’. The Fifth Element consists of a love story, an eccentric backdrop, an action driven sci-fi narrative, and a marriage of inspiration drawn from French comic books and its director's teenage musings. It’s a potent mix that could easily have crumbled, but for me, it worked like a charm.
Needless to say, performances from Willis, Holm, Jovovich and the ever-sublime Gary Oldman were the cherry on top of this brilliantly opulent sci-fi cake. If you’re looking for a great escapist yarn, look no further.