Published May 1, 1997
The Fifth Element by Luc Besson is what every crappy Hollywood postmodern extravaganza would be if it had the wit and the boldness of the author of La Femme Nikita and The Professional—together with a Hollywood blockbuster-sized budget of $100 million. With it, postmodernism has entered into its rococo phase. Some day, if anyone ever bothers to write the history of Hollywood postmodernism, The Fifth Element will be seen as one of our era’s true classics. This is not, of course, the same thing as saying it is any good.
You might, of course, want to see it just to wonder at what Besson has been able to do with the familiar futuristic materials. The story is as wildly exaggerated as the campiness of Chris Tucker in the role of the black talk show host, Ruby Rhod, who becomes the sidekick of Bruce Willis’s retired Major Korben Dallas and emits comic squeals of fear when the action gets hot.
On second thought, forget the story. The point is that every postmodern fixture is raised to its highest power. The McGuffin is some magic stones which, properly placed in a secret room in an ancient Egyptian tomb, will call down the benevolent forces of the universe and destroy (with the usual laser beams of white light) the evil death star descending on the earth. The action, set in the 23rd century, involves rival attempts by the evil corporate chieftain Zorg (Gary Oldman) and the largely benevolent authorities of planet earth (this is how you know there is a foreign element in the usual Hollywood mix; a straight Hollywood product would have made the bad guy a member of, if not the head of, the government) to get their hands on the stones.
There are also a gang of grotesque, animal-like monsters functioning as mercenaries in trying to get the stones to sell to Zorg and another gang of grotesque, animal-like monsters who are the race of gods trying to save the world. The bad monsters look like gargoyles—something between a dog and a toad, while the good monsters look like giant metallic beetles with birds’ heads. Most importantly, one of the bird-beetles, shot down by the dog-toads, is resurrected from DNA (which seems to be a routine procedure in the 23rd century) and turns out to be a gorgous young woman with orange hair called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who is also, funnily enough, the supreme being of the universe incarnate.
Here is the reductio ad absurdum of the femme Nikita argument. The beautiful girl is both all powerful (we see her taking out a whole army of dog-toads with the usual martial-arts techniques which she has downloaded into her mental computer a few hours before) and vulnerable and in need of the help of the tough but tender Major Dallas. “This woman is mankind’s most precious possession,” says Cornelius (Ian Holm) the obligatory priest-interpreter and explainer of the sacred symbols. “She is perfect.” Yet, like la femme Nikita, she is also “more fragile than she seems. She needs your help and your love,” the priest says to Dallas, who is divorced and on a coincidental if hitherto ironic quest for the “perfect” woman.
I could go on at length about the cleverness and the wit with which Besson has imagined his preposterous future, but I will confine myself to one example. Zorg, a caricature arms-dealer-plutocrat-capitalist explains his bad-guy philosophy to Cornelius by saying that “Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from disorder, destruction, chaos.” He then proceeds to demonstrate by deliberately breaking a tumbler and then watching as a series of specially adapted little robots sweep up the glass, reassemble it into a tumbler and pour him a drink in it. In the same way, if the evil death star destroys the earth in the process of making him, Zorg, considerably richer, that just means more work for those who’ve got to clean up the mess!
I just love this. Zorg is a Keynesian villain! It’s not enough that his secretary, dolled up in 23rd century style and doing her nails, puts “Mr Shadow” through to him from the death star. He is evil himself in a peculiarly 20th century way—the kind of capitalist they just don’t make any more. Like Keynes, he imagines that an economy consists of paying one lot of people to dig holes which another lot of people then are paid to fill in. In the same way, when an assistant comes to him to ask him to downsize his taxi company (the taxis, one of which Major Dallas improbably drives, look like flying dodgem cars) by half a million workers, Zorg instantly ups the figure to an even million—as if he imagines that going out of business completely would make him richer still.
“You’re a monster, Zorg,” says Cornelius.
“I know,” he says with satisfaction. But like the other monsters in the film, of which there are many, he succeeds for a moment in what has become the rarer and rarer feat of making his monstrousness interesting.