Movie Review: The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is a campy sci-fi film that’s half action movie and half comedy of errors. It takes a while to get started and doesn’t really make sense, but if you just go with it it can be pretty fun. The characters are basically Bruce Willis As Han Solo, Ms. Born Sexy Yesterday, Priest Who Always Wanted To Be Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a horny flamboyant TV show host literally named “Ruby Rhod”, with a special appearance by Southern Tony Stark as the villain. (Southern Tony Stark was definitely my favorite part of the movie.)

The basic structure of the movie is 1. Introduce challenge; 2. Show all the interested factions trying to get through the challenge; 3. Repeat. While the framing is fairly serious, the actual conversations and actions people take are generally light and humorous—at one point Bruce Willis As Han Solo shoves several people into a fridge to hide them—and there are some very well-timed cuts between disparate scenes for both comedic and dramatic effect. There are also some pretty good Star-Wars-style aliens (humanoid but not human-featured, as opposed to Star-Trek-style makeup aliens).

The film definitely fails on the diversity front. For a Western movie, there’s a surprising number of non-white people onscreen at all…but not particularly well-portrayed. The worst offence is a Mr. Kim, who runs a Thai restaurant from an overtly Chinese-themed airship. (And, like, Chinese-themed in the Chinatown way, where it’s just decoration and not really representative of actual people.) And while both the aforementioned TV show host and the president are Black, neither of them have much agency in the story.

The treatment of women is even worse. The movie does pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, but just barely—and that’s a pretty low bar. There are only two women that matter in the entire movie, and they meet once. I think there’s only one more with lines. And while Ms. Born Sexy Yesterday is competent at athletics and combat, she doesn’t actually do much in the way of driving the plot, and meanwhile Bruce Willis As Han Solo has a scene where he kisses her without consent.1 So, uh, yeah.

So do I recommend The Fifth Element? I can’t really go that far, both because of the aforementioned issues and because it’s just not that well put together. But there’s a good number of people who’d still enjoy it as something in the same family as Guardians of the Galaxy; take that as you will.

Postscript: Two decades later director Luc Besson returned to direct Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I described as “the dumbest sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen”. Apparently, one of Besson’s inspirations for The Fifth Element was the comic series that Valerian is based on, and looking at the two movies I can see a lot of similarities. But while The Fifth Element was a campy comedic ride, Valerian was just a mess, and so if you’re dying to see what Besson’s sci-fi is about, The Fifth Element is the way to go.

  1. Something Harrison Ford As Han Solo also all-but-does in The Empire Strikes Back. ↩︎