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'The Fifth Element': A Spacey Odyssey

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 9, 1997

The French may have invented the futuristic action adventure picture with 1902's "Trip to the Moon," but it was the Americans who transformed the B-movie genre into an overpriced popcorn art form. "The Fifth Element," directed by "La Femme Nikita's" Luc Besson, manages to be true to both schools. It's overwrought, cheesy sci-fi, but the cheese is brie.

Besson's second foray into epic science fiction -- his first was 1982's gloomy "Le Dernier Combat" -- centers on a pre-apocalyptic, planet-imperiling battle in the 23rd century. The script, written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is an entertaining tangle of pop aesthetic and comic book myth that occasionally bogs down, but manages to be ingratiating for all its defects.

The script, begun when Besson was a 16-year-old, is neither visionary nor thought-provoking and would be deep only in comparison with an omelet pan. Still, its spoofy references from "Blade Runner," "Dune," "StarGate," "2001: A Space Odyssey" et al. will appeal to genre aficionados, and its cornea-warping effects will delight summer audiences in the market for eye candy.

"The Fifth Element" offers a store full of pyrotechnics, and it should, with a $90 millon price tag, much of which seems to have gone for the risque threads designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. In many respects, the film is less a space opera than a clothes encounter of the third kind: Monks in yarmulkes reminiscent of cow pies, flight attendants in naughty knockoffs of prim Jackie-O suits, and most notably, the heroine's babyish, Band-Aid bodysuit. Haute couture receives so much attention you'd think the fifth element was style instead of the life force (love, God or whatever the heck it is). In any case, Leeloo (fashion model Milla Jovovich) embodies the stuff, and she has come to Earth with the Mondoshwan, a sentient race of giant scarab beetles who have been watching over the planet since ancient times.

After a bumpy landing and some serious reconstructive surgery, Leeloo finds allies in Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a wisecracking cabby formerly with the special forces, and Father Cornelius (Ian Holm), an Obi-Wan Kenobi knockoff with information vital to Earth's victory over a malevolent un-life force.

Every 5,000 years, the menace slips through an inter-dimensional doorway and attempts to destroy all life; only the fifth element, along with four sacred stones representing earth, wind, fire and water, can forestall Doomsday. Zorg (Gary Oldman) and his minions, the Dog People, stand in the way, for they have gone over to the dark side.

Oldman virtually goes into orbit as the disfigured Zorg, whom he seems to have modeled on Ming the Merciless and the Phantom of the Opera. But he's a model of understatement compared with Chris Tucker, a shrill, androgynous deejay who becomes Dallas's sidekick during the uninspired but really long battle scenes with Zorg and his fellow fiends.

Jovovich makes a sexy deity (she sure beats George Burns), and Willis dies just as hard in outer space . . . although in this case it's more like outre space. Whatever.

A spectacular triumph of style over substance, "The Fifth Element" makes about as much sense as bras on the moon. But it's also really very sweet, and Besson honestly seems to believe the movie's message: Love conquers all.

The Fifth Element is rated R for violence, brief nudity and profanity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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