A largely misfired European attempt to make an American-style sci-fi spectacular, “The Fifth Element” consists of a hodgepodge of elements that don’t comfortably coalesce. The splashy and cacophonous $70 million production, which launches the 50th edition of the Cannes Film Festival tonight, stands as by far the most expensive French film project ever undertaken, and as such reps a major risk for the venerable Gaumont company. Prospects look just OK in the U.S., rights for which Sony paid $25 million, but better overseas, where director Luc Besson’s name means more and where the mid-tech look, erratic production values and inane narrative could do less damage.
From an audience perspective, the solid presence of Bruce Willis provides just about the only recognizable thing one can latch onto amid this mishmash of half-baked futuristic, mythological, quasi-religious, big-scale action and would-be romantic motifs. Despite the hefty production coin and U.K. shooting base, there is something left to be desired about nearly every aspect of the picture, from the narrative line and vision of the future to the score and execution of the special effects, that will combine to turn off all but the most avid teen sci-fi fans long before pic comes in for its final landing.
Besson is certainly one of the few Euro helmers who would conceivably be inclined, as well as trusted, to turn out a lavish futuristic actioner with intended international appeal. Director originally conceived the story in his teens, and tale does feel like something that could have been born in a daydream, with little regard to coherent narrative or characterization. Pic is ultimately a mess of diverse ingredients that sorely could have used a rigorous screening process to eliminate all the chaff.
Twelve-minute prologue is not unpromising, with some Western explorers in 1914 Egypt uncovering the meaning of some ancient carvings that detail how a malignant evil force can be conquered by means of a convergence of small totems representing the four elements plus the energy of life.
By the year 2259, however, the lessons of the inscriptions have been forgotten by all but a sort of high priest (Ian Holm). But it’s a good thing somebody remembers, because the Earth finds itself in the path of a huge, fiery, onrushing planet that conventional weapons only make bigger and stronger. It is the moment, alas, that the cancerous, anti-life force has seized to try once again to extinguish the positive life force, and the earthlings have very little time to do something about it.
Possible salvation arrives in the form of a genetically regenerated young woman, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a naked, orange-haired acrobat of superhuman strength and an incomprehensible language who escapes from the lab only to land in the flying taxi of New York cabby Korben Dallas (Willis). This gives Besson and his raft of design collaborators their best chance to present a view of life on the planet more than 250 years hence, to envision Gotham the way L.A. was imaginatively projected in “Blade Runner.” Unfortunately, the very vertical and congested Manhattan on view mostly looks like a bunch of cheesy and unconvincing matte shots and animated effects, a vision, moreover, presented without either a haunting persuasiveness or a disarming wit and humor.
While Korben takes Leeloo to see the priest, Zorg (Gary Oldman), overlord of all evil, is equipping some would-be fearsome animal mercenaries for the ultimate battle, which oddly takes place on board an outer-space cruise ship that resembles a Vegas-style tropical casino.
As high noon approaches, much of the action is unaccountably devoted to the flustered screeches and rants of a scatterbrained show queen (Chris Tucker) who sounds like Butterfly McQueen on speed, as well as an oddball concert by an alien diva (Maiwenn Le Besco), who makes one appreciate the special quality of Lisa Marie’s vaguely similar creation in Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” Enormous interior of this airborne luxury liner has a very stagy feel, but it does finally provide Willis a venue for some action heroics, triggered by a familiar ticking-clock countdown that is none too suspenseful. Ending strains for a transcendent philosophical-romantic climax, for which there’s been little preparation.
Besson, whose best previous work, such as “La Femme Nikita,” had a sharp, clean look, has lost his grip on his sense of style here. Enlisting the help of a host of celebrated accomplices, including French illustrator Moebius and graphic novelist Jean-Claude Meziers, in addition to production designer Dan Weil, visual effects supervisor Mark Stetson and costumer Jean-Paul Gaultier, the director has attempted to fashion a future that has a rougher, more lived-in look than most sci-fiers.
Unfortunately, except for the explicitly futuristic elements, such as flying cars and spaceships, the film’s imagination is far too firmly stuck in the 1990s, especially when it comes to personal style and music. The punkish and gender-crossing orientation of many of the characters looks straight out of any trendy contempo nightclub, while the score seems disappointingly stuck in the hip-hop and techno-rock era. Never does the film convincingly soar into the future and stay there in the manner of the best sci-fi/fantasy pictures.
Nor is there much credibility in the script, which jumps all over the narrative and interplanetary map, creating a gradual loss of interest and engagement. Besson throws everything he can think of into the mix, and loudly, without much regard to the meaning of the individual parts and how they might interrelate. Film remains passably interesting for a while, but degenerates as its lack of discipline and focus becomes overwhelmingly apparent.
Willis emerges from it all battered but unbowed, seeming to exist simultaneously within and apart from the rest of the film. Former teen model Jovovich makes a striking impression, but her character disappointingly disappears for long periods, reducing her impact. All others deliver perfunctory turns at best.