THE FIFTH ELEMENT — Review by Cynthia Fuchs

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“This woman is mankind’s most precious possession.” So exclaims Father Cornelius (Ian Holm), gazing with awe and adoration at Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). The priest has been awaiting her arrival for years, and now, in 2263, hopes against hope that she’ll fulfill the prophecy and save the world. Continue reading…

The titular character in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, Leeloo is a bit of a puzzle. A Supreme Being sent to earth to defeat the Great Evil, she’s at once Christ-like and childlike, ethereal and utterly corporeal, a follow-up to 11-year-old Natalie Portman’s Mathilda (from Besson’s Leon, The Professional) and a precursor to Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy (in Besson’s film of the same name). Her initial interactions with men — all men — underline her newness, her voracious hunger, grand gestures, tendency to tear up, and lack of speak English (she speaks what Cornelius calls “the divine language, spoken throughout the universe before time was time”). Her deposit in Cornelius’ quarters is facilitated by Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a former Special Forces officer reduced to driving a cab, and Leeloo’s designated love interest, following her crash through the roof of his vehicle and his gallant efforts to rescue her from burly cops in helmets.

That she even has a love interest has more to do with generic conventions than thematic possibilities. An awkward romance and mightily slow-movie sci-fi action film (with plentiful visual quotations from Willis’ Die Hard, among others), The Fifth Element is most concerned with style. Most striking is Leeloo’s body suit made of white bandages (designed by Jean Paul Gaultier), but the guys — including the villain, Zorg played by Gary Oldman — tend to wear flashy outfits as well.

Of these, the flashiest by far are modeled by an all-media, post-reality host named Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker in a role first offered to Prince). For all the potential hubbub generated by the film’s futuristic tricks (hover-cars, monster soldiers, horrific weapons, Tricky as Zorg’s henchman) and the very idea that Leeloo is the planet’s savior, Ruby Rhod is consistently the strangest, most compelling figure in sight. Tucker’s performance is loud, broad, and daunting, queer and straight, trans and utterly embodied, annoying and undeniable. Surrounded by a squad of many-gendered sycophants and divas, not to mention a plot full of hackneyed explosions and retro-seeming space ships, as well as overwritten speeches about the ineluctable interrelations among time, creation and destruction, Ruby Rhod steals every scene he’s in.

Though Ruby Rhod and Leeloo have little to do with one another on screen (they’re barely in a scene together), they’re connected at their thematic hips, both incarnating passions and audacities, desires and fears, beyond language and quite beyond time. This isn’t to say The Fifth Element isn’t dated (it rather seemed that way when it first opened back in 1997, a future imagined through an historical lens). It’s still peculiar and cumbersome and can’t get out of its own way, but now, as the world seems consumed by prejudice and meanness, it’s quite possible to appreciate the movie’s out-of-timeness, its corny love of love.

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Cynthia Fuchs

Cynthia Fuchs is Film and TV reviews editor at and director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.