I was wondering to myself when I wrote this up: Was Luc Besson ever very successful? Wiki says The Fifth Element “was a strong financial success, earning more than US$263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget.” That’s worldwide, which means I think by today’s standards $270M would be considered “break even”, right? $90M plus $90M for US advertising plus $90M for the rest of the world. I dunno: Researching things from the dawn of the Internet is challenging. The only thing I could be sure of is that critics have never much liked Besson.
But the further we get away from a movie in time, the better we can evaluate it on its own merits, apparently. Whether it’s It’s A Wonderful Life or Sleeping Beauty or The Big Lebowski, some films take time to appreciate. And, of course, some films that were hits at the time don’t age that well. So where does The Fifth Element fit in the scheme of things? Overblown? Underappreciated?
I’d say: yes and yes. What worked about the film in 1997 still works today. The performances, the set pieces and the little moments, the score, the production, the set design, the art design, the sound design, the music—as a feat of filmmaking, it’s still quite remarkable. It’s a bit over two hours and feels epic, like there’s a cast of thousands (with two or three dozen listed on the credits). It does successfully what Lucas—not to pile on the guy—never managed with the prequels: It feels alive, futuristic, alien, operatic.
Most of the stuff that didn’t work back then still doesn’t work, though I for one care a lot less (about what doesn’t work). There is not a lot of there there. For each cool scene, e.g., you are left with a bunch of questions about how what you saw makes sense in any context at all. In our futuristic police state, e.g., three or four different groups try to pass themselves off as Korben Dallas and his wife. This raises no security flags whatsoever. In fact, we witness a scene early on with Dallas in his apartment being rousted by cops who of course have access to his photo, but none of the people pretending to be Dallas make any attempt to look like him while collecting his galactically-famous prize.
It’s a good scene. Just like Gary Oldman is a great villain who is literally evil and a one-man-evil-band on a—well, speaking of Sleeping Beauty, he’s about Maleficent level. He employs millions, maybe hundreds of millions, and he can casually fire bunches of them for no real reason. He doesn’t answer to anyone. He is essentially a exemplar of Evil Corporate Guy. Just like Bruce Willis’ Dallas is a paragon of Tough Guy, who can walk into a room full of warriors and just shoot the leader between the eyes—the leader that the warrior race utterly depends on but also apparently take no pains to protect.
Hey, that’s another great scene. Makes no sense at all.
The movie puts cool ahead of anything else at every moment and…you know, that’s okay. Amongst a host of dumb, mega-FX summer flicks, it stands out for still being entertaining.
Willis and Oldman are in top form, and it may be the best role Milla Jovovich ever has played. (Although what exactly she’s playing is unclear.) But her delivery of the language she and Besson invented is really perfect and I feel like subsequent roles she’s had haven’t really put a lot of great words in her mouth. She also gets a great range of emotions to display and comes off very likable.
Back in the day, I found Chris Tucker’s androgynous Ruby Rhod nigh-unbearable. He’s dialing schtick up to ten and yet, by today’s standards, he doesn’t seem all that outré.
It does sorta make you wonder why Valerian was such a stinker. A lot of people blame the two leads, but they’ve both gone on to turn in respectable performances elsewhere. The mysterious “chemistry” one’s always hearing about? I mean…did Bruce and Milla have chemistry here or were they just two charming and hot people? Dunno.
I do know that the universe of The Fifth Element feels more real to me, and looks better than its 20-year-newer predecessor. On the other hand, it may just come down to Besson. Making movies is hard, the movie business is hard, and it takes a lot out of people. Almost nobody who was hot in the ’90s is still hot now. (Tom Cruise and Milla Jovovich, basically.)
I would say that this movie, rather remarkably, is more or less just the same experience as it was back then. Weird, really.