Ever wonder what society will be like several centuries into the future? The Fifth Element (1997) offers a vision of that future, though that is not the point of this film. Instead, it is a telling of the classic tale of the ongoing battle between good and evil. It does so creatively, taking aspects from many different religions around the world that, at the end of the day, demonstrate a desire for good common to many of them. It speaks to the intrinsic altruism in all of us, and while there is solid comedic relief throughout, the idea of good triumphing over evil is what has kept me coming back to it over the past twenty-three years. Wait, twenty-three years? Holy cow!
The Fifth Element introduces its story with archaeologist Professor Pacoli (John Bluthal) deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics near the beginning of World War I. He is on the cusp of understanding the weapon that is the Fifth Element used to counter the evil that is visited upon earth every 5,000 years. It was at that point that the Mondoshawan, a race of aliens that keep the four elemental stones (think Captain Planet) that go along with the Fifth Element, show up and take the weapon away from Earth. Fast forward to five hundred years into the future and it is now the appointed time for the weapon to be used again. This time evil, in the form of a small death moon, has employed the help of various henchmen, led by the business mogul Zorg (Gary Oldman). Together they manage to destroy the Mondoshawan ship bringing the Fifth Element back to Earth. However, Earth’s government, the president of which is President Lindberg (Tommy “Tiny” Lister) who seems to have very little time on his hands, manages to recover a bit of the body. They bring it back, reconstruct it, and low and behold, the Fifth Element, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), is a woman. That was not expected, apparently, by everyone involved. Being the “Supreme Being” and not expecting to wake up in such a setting, she escapes from the facility and lands in the taxi driven by Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). After managing to escape the authorities. Dallas brings Leeloo to Cornelius (Ian Holm) who is a priest that has been preparing for the arrival of the Fifth Element. However, the stones have been entrusted to someone else, the Diva (Maïwenn Le Besco) and friend of the Mondoshawan, who is set to perform on another world. Being the key to stopping evil, the government rigs a contest for Dallas to attend the concert. He is also picked because he is a former special forces soldier, possessing skills that come in handy when the mercenary Mangalores kill the Diva and attempt to steel the stones for themselves. Having foiled that plot, Dallas brings Leeloo and the stones back to Earth just in time to destroy evil.
That was a challenging plot summary, and unfortunately it left out many elements of The Fifth Element (pun intended). The main thing omitted was the comedic relief that I alluded to in the first paragraph. It can be summed up by one character: Ruby Rhod (Christ Tucker). I recall seeing a making of the film at some point that mentioned that even Tucker was surprised by some of the things he was asked to do. To say that Ruby Rhod was over-the-top would be an absurd understatement. From the tight fitting, beflowered costumes to the loud tone with which he speaks throughout, Ruby Rhod lightens the mood in more ways than one. His antics made me laugh in 1997, and still make me chuckle in 2020. One of my favorite moments in the film is at the end after Leeloo has triumphed, and the camera focuses on Ruby Rhod, Cornelius, and David’s (Charlie Creed-Miles, Cornelius’ assistant) reaction to the explosion of light that issues from the Fifth Element. The wide-eyed look of amazement that Tucker holds for several beats is hysterical, as is the jolt he gets when David yells in triumph.
While the laughs are great, what makes The Fifth Element great for this reviewer is that it is a pro-life movie. Throughout the evil planet’s goal is basically to destroy life. It is not entirely clear how this would be accomplished, but the threat is ever-present at least. As a pro-life Catholic, I love this message. What completes it is Leeloo herself. Her innocence is truly special. She knows her mission, she can do all sorts of superhuman things because she is “perfect,” but she cannot truly serve her purpose without love. Love is the first principle of the Christian faith. It is what Jesus calls us to do above everything else. The suggestion here, and in the movie, is that without love life is pointless. This is the dilemma that Leeloo is faced with at the end. She begins to see humans as just wanting to destroy, and it is up to Dallas to convince her that what makes life protecting is love. Well done.
It is a little surprising that The Fifth Element is rated PG-13 considering the violence and swearing in it. Thus I would not recommend it for the younger ones. There is also a little bit of nudity in it. Milla Jovovich was just coming off her career as a super-model and she seemed willing to show off her body on film. Still, the nudity here is presented as part of her innocent character and not necessarily in a sexual manner, so that is something. Nonetheless, it is a good movie that has held up pretty well since it was released.