Moving Pictures begins proper with Brothers disagreeing on one of the most lunatic Sci-Fi epics of the last three decades; The Fifth Element.
I don’t like The Fifth Element.
It’s a movie I should absolutely love; weird sci-fi, Bruce Willis, crazy plot, the vehicles, the creature effects; all the things young me sought out in a film. But none of that worked for me when I first saw this movie. I don’t know if it’s because of the plot similarities it shares with the Heavy Metal film (which I do love), Bruce Willis’ odd blonde hair, the woefully misplaced Chris Tucker, the annoyingly naïve performance of Milla Jovovich (I know it’s intentional, but still annoying) or whatever the hell Gary Oldman is doing. So, I’ve never liked The Fifth Element.
But my brother LOVED it.
I believe, like a number of teen boys, his appreciation of it probably began with star Milla Jovovich. She was one of several actresses he had an overwhelming fondness for. I hesitate to call it an obsession (it’s not like he could tell you her home address) but he’d certainly seek out any movie she showed up in. Be it a sci-fi action/adventure film or a quirky indy flick where she costars with a wooden doll, he would watch it because she was in it. I’ve no doubt he’d have been telling me that I needed to watch Monster Hunter during Christmas of 2020 if he’d been around to see it.
While it may have started with an 18-year old’s appreciation for a talented and attractive actress, it didn’t take long for it to grow beyond that. Director Luc Besson became one of several film auteurs whose work he would always track down. I’m not sure if this movie led to him checking out Leon, or vice versa, but Besson was definitely one of his favorites after he’d seen them both. And over the course of twenty years of discussing this movie (The Fifth Element), he would also often cite Chris Tucker’s performance as one of the standout elements he loved, along with other similarly goofy elements. And then there’s Gary Oldman…
I can tell you without a doubt that my brother hadn’t seen every Oldman performance before he passed away. Things like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy never really interested him. But if Oldman was delivering something peculiar, over-the-top or of the scene-chewing variety, he was down for the cause. Dracula, True Romance, JFK, Nolan’s Dark Knight series…all among his favorite Oldman performances.
With all of that in mind, I sat down to rewatch a movie I greatly dislike and spent two decades arguing against, to try and find something more. A movie I probably haven’t watched in ten years, if not longer. And why? Because, as much as he appreciated all of the aforementioned pieces, my brother wouldn’t be so smitten with a film if he didn’t see something else beyond all of that.
Almost immediately I was struck with one giant, burning thought.
Luke Perry in this movie?
I imagined he’d certainly have a bigger role when I saw his name in the opening credits, but those hopes were dashed as the film ticked along. At the time this came out he was a pretty big heartthrob. I kept waiting for him to come back into play and honestly was a little sad that he didn’t. It wasn’t until later in his career that I appreciated him as an actor at all, and was definitely shocked and saddened when he passed away not too long ago. I would have loved to see young Perry killing it in a bizarre sci-fi film like this.
Then, as the movie unfolded I found myself morbidly amused at the fact that this film features a lot of actors that have since passed. Ian Holm, who plays the priest, died in 2020, as did Tommy Lister Jr, the President in the film; Brion James was a noted character actor until he passed in 1999; John Neville, whom I was also surprised to see here, passed in 2011, I’ve mentioned Luke Perry already, and then finally, there’s Bruce Willis.
Well, he’s not dead, but his career seems to be.
It’s been so long since I watched Willis in a truly standout performance, I’d honestly forgotten how good he can be. For all of the things I am still shrugging my shoulders at in regards to this movie, I turned it off wanting to dig up Willis’ better work and have a mini film fest. He’s so gruffly charming it kept me smiling almost the entire time.
Thankfully he wasn’t the only thing I walked away appreciating. I was blown away by the creature effects and the world-building, and while I definitely could have done without the shoehorned romance between the leads, I found myself kind of enjoying the zaniness of the plot.
While doing some digging I found a quote from Besson where he talked about one of the reasons he wanted to do this movie was to show people that space could be fun. That really struck a chord with me, and maybe hits at the root of why younger me really had some disdain for it.
My sci-fi films were filled with hopeless situations and existential dread. Things like Alien, 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, The Terminator…even Star Wars and The Matrix, as crowd-pleasing as they are, have a lot of cynicism to them. And that’s the kind of genre fare I flocked to as an angsty, anxious teen. That wasn’t always the case though.
When we were kids my dad would take us to the video store every weekend and we’d all get to pick out a movie from the discount 5-day rental section. There were six of us, four girls and two boys, with the girls being younger, so you can imagine what the typical selections would be. A cartoon film, something starring a boy they thought was cute on the box, maybe a kid-friendly action movie, a family comedy, and usually something sci-fi. For my brother and I, the weirder the box art the better, but often it would be movies like Flight of the Navigator, The Last Starfighter, The Explorers, Ice Pirates, Masters of the Universe…things of that nature.
Those are the movies that pulled me into Sci-Fi. They were accessible, packed enough action to entertain a kid, and were quite often silly. The Fifth Element has all of that in spades.
It’s also got an overwhelming positivity about it. Even when things are going sideways and the plot is all just so much chaos, it never loses the hope ingrained within it. And just in case you aren’t getting the film’s message, Besson takes a calculated risk and has Leeloo inundated with video of the worst atrocities’ mankind had reigned upon itself as we watch her become a puddle of tears. Seeing it now I could only think about how much more there is to add to that list.
It’s a scene I’d completely forgotten about, and one I’m sure I dismissed as too on the nose when I first watched it. But it worked on me this go-round. There’s still an angsty teenager full of anxiety inside my 40-year-old brain, and when I think about those things I wonder, like Leeloo, why in the hell anyone would want to save us, to begin with.
But, as Corben Dallas so hokily reminds her, we also have the capacity to exhibit the greatest qualities in the universe. Chief among them being Love. And love will always be worth saving.
Besson may have set out to craft a fun alternative to the more popular bleak science fiction film, but he also managed to create the antithesis to their morally ambiguous characters and power-mad governments. Sure, everyone is working an angle in The Fifth Element, but it feels a lot like an old western, where the space delineating the good and bad is well defined and never really crossed. There’s mustache-twirling for the sake of it and slightly chauvinistic chivalry, which gets turned on its head when you find out the damsel in distress can do just fine on her own.
I still have an enormous number of issues with the movie, but watching it with eyes that aren’t quite so disparaging and a soul that’s far less cynical, I can say I appreciate what’s at the heart of it. I can almost see the “I told you so,” smirk on my brother’s face just typing those words.