We begin in an Egyptian temple in 1914, with Beverley Hills 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry and Vicar of Dibley slightly-less-of-a-heartthrob Frank Pickle (yes really) trying to decipher some hieroglyphics about a Great Evil that tries to destroy the Earth every five thousand years. Some nice aliens called Mondoshawans, who look a bit like ducks would if they were to stand upright and grow arms and have metal on the outside instead of feathers, come to the temple to pick up the only weapon that can defeat the Great Evil, which they will protect until the world needs saving.
Fast forward four thousand years and it is world-saving time. The metal duck aliens don’t actually do that great a job of looking after the weapon, and their ship gets shot down by some Mangalores (hornless alien rhinos). These alien rhinos are working for Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (a spectacularly unhinged Gary Oldman) who in turn is working for the Great Evil (a planet-sized ball of fire). At one point Zorg and the Great Evil talk on the phone. Presumably if you’re a goodness gracious Great Evil ball of fire you can hire someone to dial a number for you, but how you would hold a telephone receiver is a mystery perhaps as great as the universe itself. Or as great as the mystery of what exactly Zorg is hoping to gain from his employment. He is supposed to be the wealthiest and most powerful person on Earth, motivated entirely by greed. However if the Earth is annihilated his wealth and power – and perhaps most crucially, his life – go with it. But why worry about that when every single set looks so ridiculously cool?
Talking of cool, what is an action film without Bruce Willis? He is in charge of getting the five elements of the Great Evil-defeating weapon back together, and he’s wearing a vest so we know he means business. The fifth element, newly human-formed Leeloo (the stunningly-outfitted Milla Jovovich) drops out of the sky and into his taxi. He has to take her on a space cruise to reunite her with the other four elements (some rather less sexy stones).
The first time I watched The Fifth Element I thought that the scene of Leeloo fighting the alien rhinos intercut with a big blue tube-y alien singing a trance opera song was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I can pretend that my tastes are more sophisticated now (who am I kidding, just thinking about it makes me tingle slightly) but it definitely set up a weakness within me for the musically accompanied fight scene: the Blade vampire rave fight, anything in The Matrix, the bit in The Big Lebowski where John Goodman hits the nihilist over the head with his own ghetto blaster.
Never taking itself too seriously, The Fifth Element feels like a live action cartoon. And herein perhaps lies both its success and failure. It moves so fast and is so exuberant that you can’t help but get carried away by the campy spectacle. But can something quite so willfully over the top ever be respected as a sci-fi film, even with such stunning production design? It may not have as much to say philosophically as Blade Runner, or, frankly, Tom and Jerry, but it could definitely hold its own in a hi-octane Prodigy-accompanied dance fight.