The Fifth Element is an incredible film - up to a point. The set designs are uniformally spectacular. The costumes, by kilted Eurotrash presenter and bad boy of Parisian fashion Jean-Paul Gaultier, will knock your colour-coordinated socks off. The special effects, by a Digital Domain team headed by ex-Blade Runner model shop boss Mark Stetson, are world-class in quality and brain-overloading in quantity. And Luc Besson - reunited with his gifted Nikita and Léon cinematographer Thierry Argobast - has always been inspirational when it comes to pointing a camera. For these reasons alone, Fifth Element is must-see cinema - especially if you enjoyed Blade Runner and Total Recall, the films it most closely resembles.
But is it a great movie?
Well, no, but it is fast-moving, funny (a lot funnier than you're expecting) and generally well played by an international cast. The problem is that it doesn't sustain these levels of surprise and delight for its duration - the story stops making sense early on, instead getting mislaid in a series of increasingly meaningless set pieces. Blade Runner boiled down to a tense, emotional confrontation between two men; Total Recall regularly yanked rugs from under your feet; but The Fifth Element finishes with an extended fight-and-chase romp around a luxury cruise liner, a sequence that means very little and badly outstays its welcome. Considering that the movie is excellent on so many levels, it's a damn shame that the audience will be yawning well before the dénouement.
The Fifth Element's origins are unusual. It's been a pet project of director Besson - creator of such stylish flicks as Subway and The Big Blue - for many years, starting life as an extended fantasy born during his teenage years (not that sort). These dreamy origins may explain the end result's lack of conventional logic, though French peculiarity may have something to do with it too: it makes about the same amount of sense as your average Gallic SF graphic novel - not a lot. (Comic-book master Moebius contributed character and set designs.) Besson, committing himself heart and soul to the project, first took The Fifth Element into pre-production back in 1993, but had to put it on hold when studio moolah temporarily ran out (not that he sat around - he took advantage of this break to make Léon).
Element starts in fascinating fashion back in 1914, with a pair of explorers (one of them Beverly Hills 90210's Luke Perry) discovering some magical rocks and a particularly nasty threat to Earth. This worries the keepers of the stones, a mysterious priestly sect, and the movie's quirky comic bent immediately becomes apparent: a man of God decides that poisoning is the only way to stop the (doubtless well-meaning) Westerners broadcasting their discovery and thus threatening the security of planet Earth. This leads to some Danny Kaye brew-that-is-true slapstick, before the kindly Mondoshawan aliens arrive to whisk the stones to safer safety on their world. It's a great start - intriguing, well-realised, and telegraphing right from the off that we shouldn't take what follows too seriously.
Next stop 2259, and the evil has turned up as a burning planetoid that grows stronger each time Earth warships fire at it. Only Ian Holm, latest in that wise line of priests, realises how serious the threat is - especially when those nice Mondoshawans, on their way back to help us after all these years, get blown out of the sky by another bunch of aliens, the Mangalores. These canine mercenaries are in the pay of multi-millionaire weapon maker Zorg (Gary Oldman). For reasons best known to himself (surely he'll die with the rest of humanity if the evil has its way?), Zorg has allied himself with the darkness, and is keen on finding and destroying the four vital stones. Pitted against him are Holm's incompetent comedy version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the beautiful, virtually naked Leeloo (Milla Jovovich as a super-strong heroine cloned on Earth from bits found in the wreckage of the Mondoshawan ship) and ex-army hero turned flying-cab driver Korben Dallas (Willis), our way into the story.
These are all fun characters: Holm's Cornelius barely holding it together, and thus a complete failure as a mentor figure; Jovovich wide-eyed, wondering and frankly stunning in a series of barely-there Gaultier outfits (she holds much of the appeal of Daryl Hannah's mermaid innocent in Splash); and Bruce his normal world-weary self, adding a much-needed stable centre to the never less than over-the-top proceedings. Gary Oldman's arch-fiend Zorg is good value too, and gets the funniest lines - though his odd mid-galactic accent renders every other witticism indecipherable.
Less successful are some of the more minor characters, wheeled on relatively briefly but giving the film an overdose of comic relief - trip-hop Bristolian Tricky as Zorg's henchman, the ever-bemusing Lee Evans as a bumbling cruise liner steward, Blade Runner star Brion James as an Earth general, and, in particular, disc jockey/TV host Ruby Rhod, who dominates and destroys the last act (see below).
And therein lies the The Fifth Element's problem - it conjures up an incredible future world, but never knows when to stop with the visual invention and get on with the plot. Thus, roughly halfway through, you stop caring what happens to Korben, whether he finally gets it on with Leeloo, or even whether evil gobbles up the universe, and simply surrender to the sfx ride. Indeed, just when the film should be building towards a climax, it degenerates into space pantomime - a loose, shaky hook on which to hang a lot of bizarre star turns. By this point, even Besson's highly orchestrated action set pieces, technically as good as anything in Léon or Nikita, fail to register - Rhod's hijacking of the film has already beaten you into submission.
And yet The Fifth Element is hugely enjoyable. It's just that it's in dire need of brutal editing - that, or a total script rewrite to add more sense and depth. That's the very least Besson's incredible vision deserves.