Forever spiked with the success of 1977 trailblazer Star Wars, the world of cinematic science-fiction became one weighted with the newfound expectation of mass marketing and commercialisation as the galactic juggernaut chugged on until its halt in 1983. Robocop, The Terminator, and even the world of Jurassic Park became commodities and vehicles in which to shift merchandise in the wake of the Star Wars franchise. Though in a camp 1990s landscape of cinema, in which The Phantom Menace would soon hail a new dawn for big-budget filmmaking, Luc Besson’s space opera The Fifth Element would remind audiences of what makes sci-fi quite so oddly unique.
Slotted beside Starship Troopers, Men in Black and Gattica in a fantastically diverse year for sci-fi cinema, Besson’s 1997 triumph is a simple, melodramatic adventure across the stars utilising the very best of earth’s most eclectic minds. From Jean Paul Gaultier’s exclusive hand in the costume department, to French comic-book artist Jean-Claude Mezieres avant-garde conceptual design, The Fifth Element feels like a DIY melting pot of personalities and ideas.
Such reflects the comprehensive diversity that makes up the world of 2263 New York, a colourful futuristic city littered with neon billboards and matchbox flying cars, one of which belonging to taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Sporting bleach blonde hair and an orange tank top, he appears to be the ‘everyman’ of the future when the mysterious, otherworldly ‘Leeloo’ (Milla Jovovich) crashes through his car roof. Suddenly becoming the central focus of an intergalactic plot to destroy earth, Dallas and Leeloo become entangled in a leading mission to save it.
In their flamboyant, distinctly European adventure across the stars, Luc Besson engages with cinema’s oldest roots presenting the film like a carnival sideshow, a magic act of consistent extravagance. Fueled by a pumping industrial soundtrack melding ethereal sounds and old-school hip-hop, The Fifth Element becomes an electrically charged, turbulent ride pronounced by the imagination of Luc Besson and the dazzling costumes from Jean Paul Gaultier. There’s no better illustration of the film’s illustrious nature than Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod, an obnoxiously loud television host sizzling with style and verbal audacity who welcomes Dallas and Leeloo to planet Fhloston where they seek four elemental stones.
Entrusted with the opera singer ‘Plavalaguna’, word of her possession of the stones reaches far and wide, and soon Fhloston becomes an unwary battleground, though not before the blue-tentacled Plavalaguna has a chance to perform. In a perfect fusion of ’90s ideals with pulpy sci-fi cliche, Leeloo battles through an army of fleshy, prosthetic goons to the invigorating sound of the operatic performance. It’s a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place at the annual Eurovision song contest, melding nonsensical ecstatic fun and genuinely great, if peculiar, music.
Gary Oldman’s antagonist ‘Zorg’, a strange amalgamation of an Italian fashionista and Goofy, splutters with comic insincerity in his undertaking to reach the stones “I know this music, let’s change up the beat”, marking the end to the film’s strongest and most iconic sequence. The actor himself is given relatively little to do though makes a lasting impression in the enigmatic role which leaves several question marks above his head once the credits close.
Embracing an international identity yet a rich European sensibility, Luc Besson’s film is almost more akin to the bombastic charm of Doctor Who than Star Wars, more interested in creating a world rich with colour and eclectic life than one dazzled with commercial opportunity.