A wild piece of sci-fi movie history
A few years before thim a bullets dodged in The matrix where Darth Maul emerged in The Phantom Menacea red-haired savior named Leeloo said “mmaster key. The 90’s were a wonderful time for sci-fi fans, with instant hits like jurassic park and independence day and The matrix and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But buried among them all, almost unassuming, were Luc Besson’s freaks, handsome The fifth Elementand today we have the impression of being in a film very stuck in the middle of a movement.
When The fifth Element was released on May 9, 1997, 25 years ago today, it was a solid hit. With a big budget of around $90 million, it grossed over $260 million worldwide. In the United States however, it only made $60 million, relegating it closer to cult status than mega-blockbuster. And revisiting the film a quarter century later, you see why. it’s a roll coaster of tone and intention that makes it felt incredibly unique but also naturally polarizing.
Beginning in Egypt 1914, The fifth Element instantly hits audiences with a ton of mythology. We learn that every 5,000 years, an unspeakable evil appears in the universe, and only an almighty being is called, you guessed it, tThe fifth element can stop it. Massive aliens then show up and explain that evil is still 300 years away. History then fast forwards 300 years and the Fifth Element emerges as a young woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who literally falls into the life of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Korben is a taxi driver who was a special forces officer; through a largely silly set of circumstances (which include supporting characters played by Gary Oldman and Ian Holm), he finds himself protecting Leeloo as they go on a mission to obtain the other four elements, unite them, and save the galaxy.
There are many, many a lot more is happening in The fifth Element, but that’s the basic framework. And, for the first 30 minutes or so, it all feels cohesive, methodical, and familiar. Your basic sci-fi, save-the-stuff of the world: one futuristic setting, reluctant hero, powerful but mysterious woman, etc. But at some point, essentially the moment Korben is forced to shove five people into the bowels of his one-room apartment to maintain a ruse, The fifth Element starts to move. What started out as a more serious, traditional sci-fi story becomes an almost absurd, slimy comedy. There are jokes, goofy situations, and general weirdness culminating in the introduction of Ruby Rhod, played by Chris Tucker.
Ruby Rhod is basically a hyper-energetic 23rd century Howard Stern. He’s an ultra-popular radio host who runs around commenting on what’s happening live for the whole galaxy to hear, and his manic energy combined with machine gun dialogue smells good The fifth Element in the face. Even after a few humorous scenes, once Ruby arrives you almost don’t believe you’re still watching the same movie, which is both refreshing but also a bit confusing. You can’t help but be wowed by the larger-than-life character that bursts onto the screen, but it briefly distracts of everything else. Fortunately, soon after, The fifth Element gets back on track and begins to regain the tone it started its story in with-youhat from a more traditional sci-fi action movie.
See again The fifth Element for the first time in two decades, it was these radical swings that marked me. They felt so bold, so brave, but only partially successful. Which, in a way, is The fifth Element in its entirety. Scenes spanning centuries, with intergalactic travel, cool weaponry and flying car chases, feel like a natural progression from films such as Total recall, stargate, or independence day at the level of history. But visually, it dwarfs those films exponentially. The film’s production design, costumes, and special effects are all beyond spectacular. Every choice Besson makes regarding the appearance of the film is 100% The fifth Element. You’re never going to look at Leeloo’s costume or Ruby’s hair and mistake it for another movie. It is a unique and stunning vision.
A few years later, however, films like The Matrix, The Phantom Menace, and The Lord of the Rings would similarly embrace this epic, brash, and unique style of worldbuilding. Of course, part of it was based on the previous IP address, but the scale of The fifth Element, and its release a few years before those mega-hits, almost feels like Hollywood needed to step up a gear from the sci-fi of years past. The film is like permission to go a little bolder, a little wilder, and we haven’t looked back since.
East The fifth Element really so influential? It’s hard to say. But 25 years after its release, the film’s beautiful, messy nature certainly seems extremely transitory. It has elements that are perfectly 1997 and others that are more 2022. Together, this mix of past, present, and future can be a little difficult. But there is little doubt that globally, The fifth Element was ahead of its time in good and bad. That makes it just as fun to watch and talk about now as it was then.
The fifth Element is currently streaming on Prime Video and Paramount+.
Want more io9 news? Find out when to wait for the last wonder and star wars versions, what’s next for the DC Universe in Film and TVand everything you need to know about Dragon House and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.