Fifth Element, The
(Reviewed May 1, 1997)
The Fifth Element by Luc Besson is what every crappy Hollywood
postmodern extravaganza would be if it had the wit and the boldness of the
author of La Femme Nikita and The Professional—together with
a Hollywood blockbuster-sized budget of $100 million. With it, postmodernism has
entered into its rococo phase. Some day, if anyone ever bothers to write the
history of Hollywood postmodernism, The Fifth Element will be seen as one
of our era’s true classics. This is
not, of course, the same thing as saying it is any good.
You might, of course, want to see it just to wonder at what Besson has been able
to do with the familiar futuristic materials. The story is as wildly exaggerated
as the campiness of Chris Tucker in the role of the black talk show host, Ruby
Rhod, who becomes the sidekick of Bruce
Willis’s retired Major Korben Dallas
and emits comic squeals of fear when the action gets hot.
On second thought, forget the story. The point is that every postmodern
fixture is raised to its highest power. The McGuffin is some magic stones which,
properly placed in a secret room in an ancient Egyptian tomb, will call down the
benevolent forces of the universe and destroy (with the usual laser beams of
white light) the evil death star descending on the earth. The action, set in the
23rd century, involves rival attempts by the evil corporate chieftain Zorg (Gary
Oldman) and the largely benevolent authorities of planet earth (this is how you
know there is a foreign element in the usual Hollywood mix; a straight Hollywood
product would have made the bad guy a member of, if not the head of, the
government) to get their hands on the stones.
There are also a gang of grotesque, animal-like monsters functioning as
mercenaries in trying to get the stones to sell to Zorg and another gang of
grotesque, animal-like monsters who are the race of gods trying to save the
world. The bad monsters look like gargoyles—something between a dog and a
toad, while the good monsters look like giant metallic beetles with
birds’ heads. Most importantly, one of
the bird-beetles, shot down by the dog-toads, is resurrected from DNA (which
seems to be a routine procedure in the 23rd century) and turns out to be a
gorgous young woman with orange hair called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who is also,
funnily enough, the supreme being of the universe incarnate.
Here is the reductio ad absurdum of the femme Nikita argument. The
beautiful girl is both all powerful (we see her taking out a whole army of
dog-toads with the usual martial-arts techniques which she has downloaded into
her mental computer a few hours before) and vulnerable and in need of the help
of the tough but tender Major Dallas.
“This woman is
mankind’s most precious
possession,” says Cornelius (Ian Holm)
the obligatory priest-interpreter and explainer of the sacred symbols.
perfect.” Yet, like la femme
Nikita, she is also “more fragile
than she seems. She needs your help and your
love,” the priest says to Dallas, who
is divorced and on a coincidental if hitherto ironic quest for the
I could go on at length about the cleverness and the wit with which Besson
has imagined his preposterous future, but I will confine myself to one example.
Zorg, a caricature arms-dealer-plutocrat-capitalist explains his bad-guy
philosophy to Cornelius by saying that
“Life, which you so nobly serve, comes
from disorder, destruction, chaos.” He
then proceeds to demonstrate by deliberately breaking a tumbler and then
watching as a series of specially adapted little robots sweep up the glass,
reassemble it into a tumbler and pour him a drink in it. In the same way, if the
evil death star destroys the earth in the process of making him, Zorg,
considerably richer, that just means more work for those
who’ve got to clean up the mess!
I just love this. Zorg is a Keynesian villain!
It’s not enough that his secretary,
dolled up in 23rd century style and doing her nails, puts
Shadow” through to him from the death
star. He is evil himself in a peculiarly 20th century way—the kind of
capitalist they just don’t make any
more. Like Keynes, he imagines that an economy consists of paying one lot of
people to dig holes which another lot of people then are paid to fill in. In the
same way, when an assistant comes to him to ask him to downsize his taxi company
(the taxis, one of which Major Dallas improbably drives, look like flying dodgem
cars) by half a million workers, Zorg instantly ups the figure to an even
million—as if he imagines that going out of business completely would make
him richer still.
a monster, Zorg,” says Cornelius.
know,” he says with satisfaction. But
like the other monsters in the film, of which there are many, he succeeds for a
moment in what has become the rarer and rarer feat of making his monstrousness