Luc Besson, the co-writer and director, has been quoted in Premiere magazine as saying that there are two people inside of him: "There's Besson, the director, the man, and then there's Besson, the moviegoer, the kid." Actually, there are a whole lot more than Besson the director and Besson the kid in his kangaroo pouch. Judging from The Fifth Element, Besson is also lugging around Fritz Lang from Metropolis, Ridley Scott from Blade Runner and Alien, John Boorman from Zardoz, Paul Verhoeven from Total Recall, George Lucas from the Star Wars trilogy, Terry Gilliam from Brazil and 12 Monkeys, John McTiernan from Die Hard, the auteurs from the Star Trek films, and...well, I stopped making notes an hour into the movie.
It's not that The Fifth Element is derivative--so are most science-fantasy movies, even the best. In fact, in this genre connoisseurship is a specialty of the house; for true believers, spotting all the steals and arcana is part of the fun. But The Fifth Element, which stars Bruce Willis, doesn't really work up its derivations into any kind of style; it doesn't build into something radically new.
This might not be so terrible either, except that Besson seems to think he's creating new archetypes. He's standing atop his heap of junkyard bits and striking the visionary pose. Maybe Luc should be calling himself Lucas--or Leeloo. He may even have lucked out: Because of the tremendous success of the Star Wars revivals, young audiences may end up turned on by his frequent lifts from Lucasland.
Set in the year 2259, The Fifth Element is about what happens when--as it apparently is wont to do every 3,000 years--"a door opens between dimensions" and the forces of darkness attempt to eradicate the good. Besson's vision largely lacks the wit and the awe that can come from concocting a truly imagined future. Maybe that's because in order to imagine the future, it's helpful to have some sense of the present.
And Besson, the French whiz-bang who gave us The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, and The Professional, seems to exist in a movieland continuum in which past, present, and future coexist in a perpetual Nowheresville. (I recall a press screening of his Subway in which the projectionist inadvertently skipped a reel, and no one suspected a thing.) With Besson, it's all eye candy; despite all of his mythic posturing, his loop-the-loop camera moves and in-your-face fandangos are the true substance of his films. And that's not much substance. He's a dry-hump orgiast.
When a director is concerned only with plotting his visual pirouettes, it's all too easy for him to lose track of what the story is supposed to be about. The Professional, for instance, a movie that was ostensibly about a hit man and the underage girl he protects, mutated into something far more leering and sleazy. Besson--carried away by Natalie Portman's dewiness?--photographed her with a caress that seemed more like a grope. (The film didn't do too well in America, but--mon dieu!--it's one of the most successful films ever in France.)
That same gliding amorality turns up in The Fifth Element, where Besson displays blacks as hulking oafs and morphed monsters and mincing queens. Our leader, the president of the Federated Territories, is played by Tiny Lister, Jr., as a thuggish, slow-witted overlord. It's as if the film were saying, Look what you get when you put a black man in charge. Then there's Chris Tucker's motor-mouth DJ Ruby Rhod, who sashays through all the furious futurism like a renegade from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but--just in case we got the wrong idea--also services a woman. (Service is the right word: He looks to be about as happy as a piston.) As if this weren't bad enough, the baddies who pass into our galaxy hoping to destroy Earth (they're called Mangalores) are pig-snouted, dog-faced Jabba the Hutt clones who for the most part reshape themselves into blacks.
I don't think Besson is being consciously racist here. It's just that he's such a sucker for eye candy that he probably sees blacks in this sci-fi context as more "exotic" than whites, more animal. And in a way, he's right--at least compared to the likes of Bruce Willis, who plays Korben Dallas, a war hero turned down-on-his-luck New York aircab driver; or Ian Holm as Father Cornelius, an Obi-Wan Kenobi type who possesses the ancient secret that can repel the invaders. Even Jovovich, with her blank allure, doesn't really hold the camera. She holds it the way a cover girl does--one look and you've got it.
The one big exception for the white team is Gary Oldman's Zorg, playing an agent for the outer-space baddies. Oldman has half his pate shaved and covered in plastic; the other half has a thick shock of hair draped across his forehead Hitler-style. Oldman is the film's one true camp element, and it's almost refreshing having his nuttiness around. Oldman can be so far over the top that he comes out the other side.
Willis is essentially doing a reprise of his Die Hard heroics, and his bag of tricks--the tiny half-smiles and droning self-mutterings--are the actor's action-movie equivalent of minimalism. He can be marvelous, but he knows he doesn't need to be here; he winks his way through the movie until he gets to blow things up real good and Die Hard-like. Perhaps directors like using Willis in their futuristic fantasias because he can seem knowing yet hulky. He's a wised-up Everyman, jerky but fun, and his jock allure allows him to stand in for us in these stranger-in-a-strange-land escapades. But in his last sci-fi outing, 12 Monkeys, Willis brought some depth to the strangeness. He seemed ravaged by his predicament as an ordinary man out of time. In The Fifth Element, he's just marking time.
I realize that practically all science fiction, even the goofiest, has to have its mite of seriousness--something cautionary to keep us earthlings on our toes. But the high-toned stuff in The Fifth Element is especially jarring because it directly contradicts the spirit of the rest of the movie. When Leeloo, with her superhuman brain, finally absorbs into her cranium the vast history of Earth's warfare, she's so crestfallen she can't fight any more. "Everything you create, you destroy," she cries out.
Funny--the people who made this movie are busy destroying everything they create too. Leeloo may not be much of a Supreme Being, but she has a promising future as a movie critic.
The Fifth Element.
Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Charlie Creed Miles, and Tricky. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Directed by Besson. Opens Friday.