THE FIFTH ELEMENT

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dir. Luc Besson, France 1997.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119116/

Luc Besson’s assemblage of way over-the-top design and acting choices wears its influences on its sleeve, while frantically veering at every turn to try to be different from any other sci-fi piece that came before it, at least stylistically.

The movie certainly fits squarely into the retrospective’s theme of #FutureImperfect. Perhaps feeling hemmed in by definitive visions of the future alternating between dystopic wastelands and sterile utopias, Besson opted to go chaotic neutral, or “cheerfully crazy”, in his words. Jean-Paul Gaultier really cuts loose and remakes an entire universe in his image with the costume design, while Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker chew up Moebius’s scenery, and Sylvie Landra voraciously makes a meal of the editing with aggressive cross-cuts, ever finding more ways to rapidly weave in Besson and DP Thierry Arbogast’s penchant for extreme close-ups, punctuating every beat even harder.

Ian Holm does the heavy lifting of expositing the looniest ideas of the piece with a superhuman level of credibility, while Bruce Willis does the heavy lifting of being Bruce Willis, a.k.a chaotic neutral in the flesh. Still, as a protagonist with a general lack of ideology, he’s there mostly for presence, and the most interesting dynamics come from Holm’s priest debating morality with Oldman’s industrialist who sees warmongering as a vehicle for job creation and everything else that makes their society stable and great.

Milla Jovovich got her game face on, joining a long line of Besson-verse nymphs trapped in crawlspaces, forced to harden their wide-eyed innocent souls before their time, yet still instinctively desperate to re-assimilate under patriarchal ideals. The man writes what he knows.

As such, it’s not like the piece avoids choosing an ideology altogether. Though that ideology seems firmly planted in the adolescent male fantasies of the 16-year-old Besson who penned the screenplay’s earliest incarnations, it’s not a stretch to imagine why many viewers would swear by this movie, having encountered it at just the right juncture. In many ways ahead of its time, particularly in some of its supporting casting choices such as Tiny Lister as the commanding yet increasingly put-upon President, the experience ultimately feels like an affirmation of some fairly conservative notions, but rendered in a most liberated way. “Multi-pass” indeed!

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