What, you may ask, is ultimately the point of this series? Have I come to tell you that the only good action movies were made between 1990 and 1999? No, of course not. There have been plenty of good action movies for decades before and after. North by Northwest is a wonderful action movie, and so is Ghost in the Shell. Nostalgia for the cinema of the ’90s may color my vision, but it has not blinded me. Not yet, anyway.
Let me answer this question the same way I do everything: by telling a long rambling story that I’ve probably told before on here someplace.
The story begins with my mother, who is a much better critic than I am, and one of my worst fears is that someday she may start a blog of her own, and put me out of business. Part of the reason she is so good she attributes to the nuns who educated her. One of these nuns taught my mother’s high school English literature class, where she drilled into her students that one of the great themes of literature was “Love Conquers All.”
My mother wondered what were some other great themes of literature. She concluded that another one was “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall.” Tragedy, in other words; the inevitability of fate. (Ma Gambrel is a classicist, and I’m sure that it was reading Greek tragedy that made her think of this.) She was convinced there were others, but as yet, she has not been able to name them.
Now, you know me, readers! Show me a rule, and the first thing I try to do is break it. But there’s no doubt in my mind this is one versatile rule. I’ve found that most stories can be sorted into one of these two categories. Of course, they’re very broadly defined. “Love” can be familial love, fraternal love, paternal love, erotic love, patriotic love, etc. Likewise, “City Hall” could be God, destiny, social norms, the inherently imperfect nature of humanity, ancestral sins, etc.
Is this a perfect way of categorizing fiction? Certainly not. No such thing exists. Is it even a worthwhile exercise? Well, that’s a discussion I’ll leave up to you. But I’ll tell you this: my hunch is, most famous movies of a given era will fall into one camp or the other. The late ’60s and early ’70s, for example, were heavily Ya Can’t Fight City Hall, e.g. McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Chinatown. And in contrast, the ’90s were, on balance, all about Love Conquering All.
Which brings me at last to the topic of the movie I actually want to talk about today. Like Tank Girl, this is one I’ve reviewed before, so that will spare me the synopsis, which is my least-favorite part of review writing, and let me get right to the analysis.
The Fifth Element, basically, is love. Well, of course, technically it’s Leeloo, the mysterious woman who appears just in time to oppose the evil forces threatening to destroy the universe. But she doesn’t do that until Dallas declares his love for her. It’s a surprisingly fairy-tale ending for what has largely been a wild, semi-cyberpunk sci-fi adventure.
A good theme can hold a weird movie together. You can have all sorts of weirdness, as indeed The Fifth Element does, but if you do, it’s best to have a solid foundation in the form of the kind of story that people have been telling for millennia. Otherwise, you just get weirdness for weirdness’ sake.
The other thing that makes Fifth Element great is its sense of humor. Sometimes directors get so invested in trying to make people buy in to their make-believe world that they forget to be able to laugh along the way. But this movie knows not to take itself too seriously, and the result is a playful adventure move that can be rewatched again and again. My friend Pat Prescott, who introduced me to this film, watches it whenever he’s having a really tough week.
Now, before I wrap up this installment, let’s do a thought experiment: imagine there was a Fifth Element franchise. There would have been sequels where Leeloo and Dallas broke up. There would have been a prequel that showed Zorg’s dark, gritty origin story. There would have been a reboot that was substantially the same as the original except with everything just slightly worse. It would have been awful.
One thing I’ve learned from this hobby of mine as a wannabe techno-decadent cultural critic is that the word “franchise” in the context of movies is essentially synonymous with the word “putrefaction.” Once something is called a franchise, that means it is dying. The process may be slow and subtle, or it may be swift and brutal, but it’s inevitable once that word starts showing up.
Anyway, though; this is supposed to be an upbeat series! I don’t know where all that doom and gloom came from. The point is, The Fifth Element is a wonderful sci-fi adventure that encapsulates the bubbly good-spiritedness of ’90s action movies.