I guess I sort of understand what Luc Besson was trying to do here. This was the first script he had ever written, back when he was in high school. This is not surprising, especially considering the resulting film. But what I am not sure is why Besson should have even bothered. Yes, I know this film is ultimately just a B-movie. Yet, this film is a doopey mess, which is especially sad because there are some moments here that belong in a much better B-movie. Someone like John Carpenter or Robert Rodriguez could have turned this into something fantastic. As it stands…well, just read on.
The film opens up in Egypt at an archeological dig, which has become the sort of setting du jour for every single B-movie. Two archeologists (one of whom is Luke Perry, although I seem to recall him doing nothing except being Luke Perry) uncover an ancient text about some great evil destroying Earth. A race of aliens comes along (who look like Vogons dressed in battle armor) seeming to prove the text as true. The aliens leave a key that will help destroy the evil. Flash forward 300 years, and that thing has arrived. Scientists reconstruct the perfect being, known as Leeloo (and played by Milla Jovovich) who accidently falls into the cab of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) during her escape. He helps her and a priest (Ian Holm) travel to Egypt and stop the world from being destroyed.
There. Read that preceding paragraph. Read it multiple times if you have to. You understand that, even for the traditional Sci-Fi Space Opera, this is an absolutely ludicrous plot. This doesn’t mean that the film is bad. But it certainly strains the film. A film can only take so much before it collapses under its own weight. This film practically needs a scooter to finish by the time we are done.
But so what? The plot is original, you are saying. Except it isn’t. The story is quite reminiscent of one of the segments from Heavy Metal. And that was my main problem with the film. “Harry Canyon, as a few of you may recall, followed a taxi driver in a futuristic metropolis who stumbles into an intergalactic conspiracy after a mysterious woman ends up in his cab. Again, I invite you to the plot summary above. Anyway, I kept going back to that story to compare. And time and time again, I realized that Heavy Metal actually did what The Fifth Element set out to do. Sure, Heavy Metal is as ludicrous as The Fifth Element. But it is never strained in the way this film is. The story was tight and I was left completely satisfied after twenty minutes. I was captivated by the world, but never felt like I was being teased. Here, two of my favorite ideas were not given nearly enough time
For example, I did like Rudy Rhod. I know many hated him, and I can see why. But to me, he was a perfect caricature of the pop star, who is famous simply for being flamboyant. Never mind if the material is pedantic, the presentation is what counts. Rhod supposedly runs the largest radio show in the galaxy. I seem to recall hearing him bragging about “fifty billion listeners.” That sound you heard is Rush Limbaugh eating over the fact he cannot even dream of getting those numbers. But the film never explored him. He remained a spectacle, not a character. What does having “fifty billion listeners” due to a person? What does that say about media in the future? Movie doesn’t even bother to ask.
I also enjoyed the diva for much the same reasons. But (spoiler alert) she is killed soon after her debut. I wanted to see more. I wanted to see her impact on this world, but I guess that was too much to ask. Sorry Mr. Besson, but I hate being teased. Don’t introduce me to the interesting parts of your adolescent fantasy and then forget about them.
By comparison, imagine if Star Wars only showed Han Solo and Chewbacca for a grand total of ten minutes. Better yet, imagine if Solo disappeared after the bar scene. The audience would be left wondering about him for the rest of the film. Lucas knew he had something captivating in that character. Besson could not be bothered.
I cannot say this was a completely bad film. Like said, there were parts that were captivating and the design is quite excellent. I was happy to see actors in costume rather than more CGI creations. This was from 1997, so I guess this seems more like a throwback than a tribute. But I am not a fan fo the current digital revolution and prefer such details. And parts were fun. This is deserving of its cult classic stature. But this is not a cult I will join. Simply put, Besson needed to rewrite the material to make it tighter. There are some great things here just waiting to escape. A word of advice to any filmmaker: wait for your material to be finished. Wait for the butterfly, don’t be satisfied with the pupa.