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On May 9, 1997, Luc Besson unveiled sci-fi actioner The Fifth Element in U.S. theaters, days after the film premiered as the opening-night title at the 50th Cannes Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
The four main elements of life — earth, air, water, fire — are threatened by a fifth element in Gaumont’s The Fifth Element, which Sony will distribute in North America.
Unfortunately, the four main elements of this Gaumont production — noise, costumes, production design, special effects — are not invigorated by a necessary and woefully missing fifth element, namely a coherent and appealing story.
While one can understand that the Cannes Film Festival bends over backward to program a French film for opening night, this Luc Besson project is a generally dimwitted generic monstrosity of misconnected gadgetry and soulless techno-gunk. It’s so chaotically clamorous that one fears its bombastic shock waves may have already caused the greats of French cinema (from Melies to Truffaut) to turn over in their graves.
Unwittingly, Gaumont has served up a messy U.S.-style blockbuster movie, which, as we are constantly reminded by the xenophobic cineastes of the French embargo crowd, is a culturally corrupting influence.
Undeniably, co-writer and director Besson has embarked on an ambitious, big-screen mission here and has spliced together story elements from a number of sci-fi or adventure forms. As usual, the more complicated the story, the more simplistic the conflict, and, once again, it’s the same special effects story, a battle between good and evil.
And, true to mythic form, the savior of the world is a rather unlikely chap. In this case, he’s not the son of a desert-area farmer but a 23rd-century cab driver named John McClane, er, Korben Dallas.
While there is nothing wrong with mixing tried-and-true story forms and whipping them into an entertaining and appealing scenario, screenwriters Besson and Robert Mark Kamen have put together a hyper-busy, threadbare and, ultimately, incoherent narrative that reduces The Fifth Element to the skimpy proportions of a fashion show for designer Jean-Paul Gaultier’s haute couture stitchings. Admittedly, Gaultier’s outre duds are interesting when worn by, say, Naomi Campbell, but on the players here, these peculiarities are off-putting. Nevertheless, there are some petits bon mots in the film, such as evil guy Gary Oldman’s neo-Hitler look.
Narratively challenged, visually monotonous and aurally overpowering, The Fifth Element is a staggering accretion of all the wrong elements and some rather dopey ones as well. Wait until you see the disappointing design or the evil mercenaries: Cross Yoda with an ape and stick him in a rubber dog suit.
It’s hard to fault the actors in this production, especially Bruce Willis, who has played this role so many times before with such well-oiled perfection and does look rather fearsome with his bleached hair. The other players are reduced to spouting expositional lines that do not even meet the low standards of most sci-fi dialogue or, a la Willis, they are limited to sporting funny hairstyles, Drape the Francois Mitterrand Medal of Protectionism on co-star Milla Jovovich for enduring bad dialogue, Band Aid-type costumery and a rag-doll hairdo. — Duane Byrge, originally published on May 7, 1997.
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