The Fifth Element

Batman & Robin


Science-fiction films love reimagining the world. For most of a century, directors have envisioned futures full of national catastrophes, Martian invasions, and cosmic cataclysms. They’ve provided us with benign technocracies, comic-book metropolises, and urban dystopias crammed with leaky plumbing.

But what about showing us living, breathing, recognizable women? That’s something else again. The influential Blade Runner (1982) conjured up polyglot slums and film-noir shadows; the unique City of Lost Children (1995) overlaid its high-tech gadgetry with antique Jules Verne charm. Asked to imagine what sort of women lived in these worlds, though, the filmmakers faltered and fell back. Blade Runner resorted to kung-fu androids; The City of Lost Children relied on prepubescent tots.

Luc Besson’s big loud The Fifth Element combines elements of both movies, cramming its 23rd-century New York with battered yellow cabs and magical Chinese junks. And it provides the time-honored romantic hero, a Bruce Willis knight errant who mumbles, ”I don’t want a million women. I just want one — the perfect one.”

Fair enough. Except that Bruno’s perfect female turns out to be not some assertive Navy SEAL but a carrottopped Björk-ish babe wearing what appears to be nine yards of two-inch-wide gauze. ”Perfect,” a man whispers in awe, while Milla Jovovich gets dressed. And perfect she seems meant to be, even though — or perhaps because — she’s serenely scatter-brained and utterly incapable of communicating. A lovely, limber woman who doesn’t ask questions: What more could an old-fashioned sci-fi hero want?

How about a woman who’s barely a woman at all? How about a cartoon of paper and ink?

Tim Burton’s Batman movies began in perfect Germanic shadow, with towering characters and despairing skyscrapers; Batman Returns piled on more dank detail and introduced a female antagonist to be reckoned with. ”Life’s a bitch — now so am I,” quipped Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but behind that stitched vinyl was a woman wounded; beyond those claws was someone who would not be ignored.

With Burton’s departure, however, what had been a filmed graphic novel returned to comic-book clashes; Joel Schumacher traded operatic style for sitcom puns well suited to casual video viewing. But by Batman & Robin, the female characters have become so two-dimensional they barely function even as sex symbols. Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is a sun-starved imitation of Mae West; Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl is so flatly drawn she gives paper cuts.

Of course, Schumacher doesn’t seem to like his actors, either — why else imprison Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most famous physique in the world, in one of the Tin Man’s bulky recyclables? And it may be unfair to single out science fiction for its boys-only ambiance; most action films keep female characters in decorative niches too. But science fiction is supposed to be about imagining the possible. In a genre so dependent on airy flights of fancy, clichés seem doubly leaden.

The best fantasists manage to avoid them. James Cameron gave us a buffed, buggy, but very believable Linda Hamilton in the Terminator series; Ridley Scott’s original Alien provided us with Sigourney Weaver’s Lieut. Ellen Ripley, the toughest, smartest member of the ill-fated Nostromo crew. Cameron’s follow-up, Aliens, made Ripley into a kind of gender-bent Sergeant Rock and made even more money; David Fincher’s Alien3 pushed her further into inhuman iconography and risked sinking the entire franchise.

Yet Ripley’s third believe-it-or-not adventure deserves a second chance. In theaters, it seemed only underlit and overthought; on video, you can search the same twists and shadows for the stylistic tics and moral obsessions Fincher would later bring to Seven and The Game. Given the benefit of hindsight (and a fast-forward button to scan through a soggy middle), the movie stops being a disappointing sequel and becomes more of an original drama — the moral tale of a heroine who grieves over the sacrifices of others but is finally willing to make the supreme one herself.

By the fiery end of Alien3 Fincher’s religious symbolism hits a sci-fi high unreached since Boris Karloff’s crucifixion in The Bride of Frankenstein; Weaver emerges as both the mother of one race and the savior of her own. Quite clearly there was nowhere to go with the character after this assumption into hell; next month’s Alien Resurrection, inspired more by spreadsheets than by sense, revives her as a clone.

But there may be hope. The next installment brings Winona Ryder on board as a young antiheroine and Weaver’s next-generation costar. Perhaps a new era of feminist sci-fi heroines is at hand. Perhaps the sci-fi future remains worth looking forward to. The Fifth Element: C+ Batman & Robin: C- Alien3: B

The Fifth Element
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