As the credits flash over darkness, there is deep rumbling, the kind of cosmic Dolbyized tremor you can feel in your seat. The Fifth Element hasn’t even started yet, and already it’s primed to explode. For the next two hours, Luc Besson’s kick-ass sci-fi jamboree works as hard as any movie can to ensure that we’re completely, maximally entertained. This is The Ride as fascist command. You’re going to have fun, damn it, even if it kills you.
A spaceship lands in the Egyptian desert, and out marches a team of alien soldiers that resemble giant copper scarabs. Not to worry — they’re the good guys. Cut to 23rd-century New York, which appears to have been built with a deluxe advanced version of the Blade Runner Erector set. The city is still a grid, only now it’s a vertiginous 3-D-chessboard version of its former self, with flying cars that stream down blocks layered vertically as well as horizontally. What the residents don’t know is that an ominous burning sphere, hundreds of miles in diameter, is headed toward earth. What is it? A dark sun? No, it’s evil. A great big fiery ball of…evil. (That’s about as complex as the movie’s metaphysics get.) Talk about destruction! The Fifth Element was chosen to open the Cannes film festival on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and it has to be the most garish of ironies that the movie represents the annihilation of everything Cannes has stood for. Then again, there’s no denying it’s the cinema of the future.
In a laboratory, an alien body part — a surviving remnant of those earlier beasts — is cloned, layer by layer, into human form. In rapid succession, we see bones, muscles, skin, and voila! — it’s the pouting beauty Milla Jovovich, cast here as the Supreme Being, the extraterrestrial ”Fifth Element” that can save the earth. ”This woman,” observes one scientist, ”is mankind’s most precious possession. She’s…perfect.” Indeed she is. Moments later, she has leapt into a flying yellow taxicab piloted by Bruce Willis, who saves her from the cops by taking her on a dizzy race through the stacked Manhattan maze. Ms. Perfect Being doesn’t speak English (at least, not for a while), but her alien gobbledygook is charming. Like Blade Runner, this is yet another story of a man who falls for a gorgeous sci-fi Other.
Say this for Luc Besson: He never stops giving you something to look at. The Fifth Element is a junk-heap melange of Blade Runner, Total Recall, Star Wars, Splash, Die Hard, StarGate, Scarface, Diva, the Star Trek series, and God knows what else. Watching the picture, you’re always aware that the ”fight to save the planet” is just an excuse for gadgetry and imagery and machine-gun-ripping violence. Besson isn’t a good director, exactly, but, as he proved in La Femme Nikita and The Professional, he’s a wizard at retrofitting cliches. In The Fifth Element, the future-shock details are witty (I liked the cigarettes that are four-fifths filter), the sets and urban skyscapes are spectacular, and the villain, a corporate baddie who’s somehow assisting the evil fireball, is overacted with satisfying hysterical gusto by Gary Oldman, who sports weird hair that makes him look a little like a space-age Hitler (I didn’t really get it) and who happily chews on a drawl that suggests some of our sleazier congressmen. The movie is fortunate, too, to have a lead jock as blithe and grounded as Bruce Willis. With, say, Sylvester Stallone in the role, the quips would have been as heavy as the artillery.
The Fifth Element is numbing — I was never bored, never quite moved or transported, either — yet when apocalyptic future-world visions are piled on with this much decadent zeal, the trashiness can take on a life of its own. The absurd plot, which centers on the pursuit of four mystical stones (the remaining ”elements” — our heroes have to get all five in one place), leads Willis and Jovovich to Fhloston Paradise, an intergalactic cruise ship in the sky. The movie turns ludicrous and violent, and also, for a few moments, surprisingly lyrical when Jovovich’s martial-arts combat is intercut with the funk aria of a sky blue sci-fi diva. It’s here, too, that we get to know the one character who comes close to being a crowd-pleaser: a madly insolent megalomaniac DJ named Ruby Rhod, who sports hairdos and outfits that would shame Dennis Rodman and who natters into a tiny neck-mounted microphone like a hyperactive mosquito. Played by Chris Tucker, who strings his words together so rapidly that each sentence comes out as a single punctuated thought, Ruby the super-freak entertainment queen is like Rodman, Little Richard, RuPaul, and Urkel stirred up in the same cocktail shaker — a vision of the human soul baptized in media. He’s so much he’s too much, just like the movie. B-