Buckaroo Banzai with ten times the budget and one tenth the plot. Despite several dire reviews and some wry personal criticisms, I felt obligated to go see this, the first "summer movie" of the season. And although I don't exactly regret seeing this movie, I do wish I had managed to pay only $3.75 for the privilege.
The Fifth Element is remniscent of Buckaroo Banzai in that it drops the audience straight into the action and rushes along without bothering to explain odd details. But where BB told an interesting (or at least novel) story with minimal reliance on special effects, TFE spends millions on effects to dress up what is essentially a drug-running plot from a Miami Vice episode. The Fifth Element makes exactly zero (or negative, if you count the opportunity cost of the film's underwriting) contribution to the field of science fiction cinema. Don't bother looking for any explication of the political, technological, or social developments of the 250 years that allegdly transpire between the present and the film's milieu; the cinematographer's chief inspiration for 22nd century Brooklyn seems to have been Super Mario Bros. The "President of the Federation" was inexplicably feckless; I've seen more grace under pressure (and better dialogue) from my local McDonalds night supervisor. When the director's vision of the ancient race of interstellar good-guy patrons turned out not to include the ability to stay a closing elevator door, I knew the film was in trouble.
Buckaroo Banzai was also a helluva lot funnier. The only (intentional) comic relief in The Fifth Element waits until two thirds of the way into its 122 minutes to show up in the form of a refugee from a cancelled UPN show, but who is supposed to be a DJ (apparently, the dominant form of mass media in the 22nd century will be radio). This might have been an opportunity for yet another satire of the media, but even that would have been preferable to the tiresome hysterics provided by this buffoon.
The vast majority of screen time is taken up with either mediocre car chases and gunfights or Milla Jovovich trying to duplicate Jodie Foster's shameless Oscar grab in Nell. Note that this movie was directed by Luc Besson, the man who brought us La Femme Nikita. Jovovich's character is supposed to be this "perfect human" (think the title character from Species with a heart (and an accent)), strong enough to rip through her "unbreakable" incubation chamber. She is even shown memorizing Earth's library of martial arts. So what does Besson do? He exempts her, alone among all the primary (and secondary) characters, from the Universal Action Hero Immunity to Automatic Weapons. During the penultimate fight scene, Jovovich is trapped in a ventilation shaft (cue ironic reference) and fired on repeatedly. Note that we also don't get to see her get wounded, which is the only reason to wound a hero in an action movie. We simply don't see her again until Willis has (after letting the aforementioned DJ grab far more screen time than he deserves) dispatched the bad guys and comes back to rescue her. The washed-up Special Forces guy turned-cabbie is better in a fight than the interstellar female assassin/Avatar of Good. Right.
Saving graces: Gary Oldman as Joe Bob Briggs, the (not really) surprisingly impotent arms-dealing mastermind and Servant of Evil (everyone knows that the Mark of the Devil is secretions of Hershey's Chocolate Syrup on the forehead, right?). Eric Serra's eclectic soundtrack.
I almost forgot that Ian Holm is in this movie. I'm sure he'd rather I did.
Go see Twelve Monkeys instead. You'll come away with a much better feeling about Bruce Willis, science fiction, screenwriting, French cinema, and the future of humanity.
Copyright © 1997 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.