The Fifth Element (review)

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The Fifth Element (1997) is well-made. I don’t think you can deny that, and this sense of craft is one of my favourite things about it. Sure it has a somewhat hand-wavy space opera plot, featuring a giant ball of evil: why not? (Really I don’t think Fifth Element hangs together worse than Ghostbusters, which fanboys acclaim as a classic without qualification.) It’s not the story that does it for me so much as how it’s told. Element does tons of great, casual characterisation work. Its representation game is fairly strong. The script employs dozens of easy, unsmug, rhythmic lays-and-pick-ups, which are just satisfying to watch. A contest is advertised on television, and later someone wins it. There’s a garbage strike and a resultant big pile of refuse, which is discussed and then used in an escape. The protagonist’s bed wraps up in plastic after each use: someone inevitably gets trapped in there.

The film feels like it came from a team that was very aware of other media, and drawing from an eclectic multi-national and multi-media range of sources. The theme and aesthetic invoke Star Gate‘s (1994) cosmic Egyptology. The police uniforms and the particular intersection of sprawling public disorder and over-powerful (if itself disorderly) state authority pull from Judge Dredd comics. Blade Runner is also in the room. Bits of the cityscape (I’m thinking of a particular bridge we see in the back of the frame during the taxi sequence) and vehicle design are derived from the epic Franco-Belgian Les Cites Obscures comics. The design of the Floston Paradise cruise ship reflects not only this, but also the rash of Titanic films coming out around 1997. Æon Flux infuses its costuming, as does June Hudson’s iconic work for British sci-fi television and the not-unconnected project(s) of Alexander McQueen.

Fifth Element‘s determination to include labour in its plot and visuals also feels akin to what British scifi television was doing in the 80s and 90s in Blakes 7Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. The garbage strike, the taxi minutiae, the smoked-up spaceship parasite disposal team, and even Ruby Rob’s professional hustle make labour manifest in this world in a way that’s rare in contemporary filmic SF. But it’s a film as dedicated to the epic as the quotidian: the huge space-ships are pure Star Destroyer, and some of the costuming is from Star Wars‘ visual universe as well (the Star Wars prequels, which we must remember employed many excellent designers even if the overall project was a mess from conception to completion, return the favour by visually quoting Fifth Element‘s Brooklyn, among other elements, for their Coruscant). I really welcome both the space opera scope and the commitment to working-class detail. Too many SF films lack ambition in either category, preferring to occupy a vague and unsatisfying Everyman middle-ground: SF of the bourgeoisie.

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