’90s Action Movies, Part VI: “The Fifth Element” (1997)

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.

15 Comments

  1. Exactly how I felt about Fifth Element. It manages to combine a good action story, with romance and simply refuse to take itself seriously. A very difficult balancing act, managed with verve and zest.

        1. Good point. I have a friend who can’t stand Bruce Willis… but even he likes this film. 🙂

  2. Good grief, I think I actually saw this movie, though I don’t remember any of it. I think the director had a new movie coming out at the time — was that the one based on the French SF comic books? Anyway, I never like synopsis. There are reviewers who spend 2,000 words basically writing a transcription of the story all of which I have to skip to find out what they thought of it, Which is what I am interested in. I always skip synopsis in my “reviews” as well. Anyways, I really enjoy your stories. Keep telling them.

    1. You’re right! The director of The Fifth Element also made a movie based on the French comic Valerian and Laureline. I enjoyed that one too. https://ruinedchapel.com/2017/12/30/movie-review-valerian-and-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-2017/

      I always struggle with the synopsis. I hate writing it, but then I realize I want to talk about something that happens, say, 3/4 of the way into the story. Then I feel like I need to give context to that moment, so I need to explain what led up to it, and before I know it… I’ve written a full synopsis of the story. :/ Good to know you’re fine with me just skipping that stuff. And thank you for the kind words! 🙂

  3. From my first viewing of this film, I’ve loved it! And so happy that my boys enjoyed it as much as I did when we watched it together 😊 For me, its the funny moments that make this film, they pop up out of nowhere, sometimes when you least expect it. And Leeloo is so much fun – she’s supposed to be a superpowered being yet so wonderfully vulnerable. I could go on… now I want to watch it!

    And thanks for sharing your mum’s insights – I have to say, if she started a blog, I’d read it just from the little you’ve shared. And I promise not to ditch your blog 😉

    1. It’s one of those movies you can rewatch again and again, isn’t it? 🙂

      Thanks! I’ll tell my mother you said that. But it probably won’t convince her. She avoids anything that can be broadly classified as “social media” like the plague! 😀

  4. Yes, yes, YES! We own the DVDs of all the movies you’ve reviewed – except for Tank Girl – and we love them all, especially this one. I particularly like the scene in which LeeLoo is catching up on history while eating ginormous amounts of reconstituted food. Given she makes Twiggy look plump, the scene works on so many levels. Always makes me laugh even as horrific footage of humanity’s inhumanity flashes past on the screen. 🙂
    I have to say I’m dying to find out if another one of my all time favourites is on your 90’s list. I think the vintage is right. -fingers crossed-

    1. 🙂 Fingers crossed, indeed. That said, if it turns out it’s not on my list… well, I’m not saying you’ll have to write a post about it, but… *hint* *hint* 😀

      1. lmao – Hint taken. I don’t normally do movie reviews though so I’ll wait and see what you come up with. Your batting average has been very good so far. 😉

    1. Fair question! I find I am unable to adequately describe the character in words. If I tried, I wouldn’t do him justice.

      And, like my friend Pat, part of it is how my reaction to him changed. The first time I saw it, I found him annoying. Now I think his scenes are some of the best parts of the movie.

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