Fifth Element Review
Digital Vertigo - Spinning out while watching “The Fifth Element”
Review of “The Fifth Element” by Luc Besson, Columbia Pictures 1997.
By David Cox, published in "Satellite Dispatch" web site and "Real Time" magazine 1997
Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” seems to be made on location which the French call “Future Prox”- near future. This place is very much a part of the popular French imagination via the comic book industry, in comics such as Rank Xerox, and Mobius legendary “Metal Hurlant” (Heavy Metal) magazine. Mobius’ style, much referred to in the work of Ridley Scott, (Alien, Blade Runner) is more often than not toned down in its baroque complexity - countless layers of elevated streets to cities, unfathomable scale of buildings and technology, multilayered cities teeming with people like ants.
Not so in “The Fifth Element”. Digital effects have enabled the producers to unplug all the stops in this unbelievably dense film - which investigates the themes of good versus evil and a battle of cosmic proportions for possession of four stones representing the elements - fire, earth, water and wind. The fifth element turns out to be life, represented by film’s central “La Femme Nikita” style cyberbabe. The film has its toungue placed firmly in its cheek, which is a blessing because playing this film straight would have certainly never worked. In parts, the camp appears a bit forced, and having the ordinarily superb Gary Oldman do a fake Southern drawl, was definitely a bad move in my book.The camp is in the same league as Batman returns - aggressive, sudden, bright in yer face and digitally enhanced.
What I enjoy most about the film is its design sensibility. There is a very Eurocentric aesthetic of joyful and meticulous embrace of old with the new - that particularly late 20th Century postmodern design feel first really investigated in “Max Headroom - 20 minutes into the Future” (one of William Gibson’s favourite films) and “Blade Runner”. The idea of deliberately confusing historical periods and making different design principles forecully, madly co-exsist. In 1982 the “Blade Runner” look was chic deco/modernist 1940s.
In “Blade Runner” Los Angeles was shown as Dark Manhattan - not sparse, bright, foggy and spread out as LA actually is, but towering and dark, like Gotham City. It was the Radiant City of the 1930s film “The Shape of Things to Come” immersed in abolute filth and moral decay. “The Fifth Element” looks like New York and importantly sounds like New York. The sound department has perfected the NYPD cop car
sirens effect of reverberating off buildings brilliantly. And digital sound lets them do that - position sound in 3D real estate to reproduce the sonic ambience of *already familiar* places - like NYC 1997.
In the aforementioned British “Max Headroom” pilot the aesthetic was similarly post apocalyptic, but infintely faster paced and the design aesthetic refreshingly campy and self depricating. In “The Fifth Element” the look is accelerated techno/rave, mixed with 18th Century dandyism - a kind of New Romantic look for the 1990s.
The costumes look like they were created in Paris fashion houses just last week. Some of the outfits and sets borrow strongly from David Lynch’s “Dune” - especially the use of neo classical elements in spacecraft interior design. The opera house aboard the paradise luxury liner was shot on location. One character actually introduces it to us as an exact replica of the Paris Opera - the joke being of course that being a location is is probably one of the few scenes in the film not filmed in an elaborate set.
Computers in can be safely said, enable film makers to visually create anything which can be imagined. Effects such as lighting, texture mapping and 3D design enable anything at all to be made and animated. Cities are no problem - the way cities are appear - big blocks covered with detail - is easily reproduced in a computer . Cars can be made to float and fly - in fact it is probably easier to show a car flying in a computer than it is to show it convincingly rolling along the ground. And the Fifth Element immerses us - drowns us in a city which has sped up to a rate which baffles us as 1990s New York would baffle our great grandparents. Camera moves can be mimicked with breath taking accuracy, and the camera motion of real cameras filming real events can be used to guide virtual cameras in exactly the same way.
I’ve got freinds who are into digital special effects in a big way who have seen this move five times
already. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of audiovisual assault yet (and at $10.50 a time it sure adds up) but when the video comes out, the rewind and pause button will be put to damn good use. You see, my SPFX friend tells me earnestly, it costs *money* to pay Californians to animate computer generated cars, cities and spacecraft. A lot of money. In some ways, thinking about this films alleged 70 million dollar production costs makes me wince - one wonders if films can be made in America any more unless they can guarantee box office success.
William Gibson and Robert Longo were simply forbidden by the Hollywood system from spending anything less than 40 million on “Johnny Mnemonic”, when all they wanted was about 10 million to do a kind of latter day “Alphaville”. In that film, Jean Luc Godard had his main character drive around the present day (early 1960s) Paris as if it were some future city in some future time. In other words, why bother going to the trouble of showing the city, when the themes are all that matter? But try swinging that idea past the suits in La La Land. Block buster or nothing. No in betweens. Mass market or no market. And what a pity it is, really. When better films come often from an imperative to well, make better films...
And.... I’m still trying to imagine what the spinnoff products of this film will be if any - its central characters are cartoon like enough to be made into plastic figures, but the whole mindset of the film is so campy and knowing - in the tradition of “Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure” and “Robocop” that a chic Euro audience seems the films more likely merchendise destination.
Toys R Us inventory might apply automatically to Jurrassic Park type blockbusters, but the “Fifth Element” seems to belong to a different catagory altogether. On one level it is a good old chase/cliffhanger film a la “Total Recall” but like that film’s almost baroque intertwining themes of identity, responsibility and paranoia, the “Fifth Element” seems to belong more to the “anything goes” aesthetic of Mobius comics, the 1968 Batman TV series and Ren ‘n’ Stimpy. This is a film made by and for the contemporary 20 to 35 year old market, who know about techno music, know about computers, know about cyberpunk, love “Blade Runner”, 32 and 64 bit games platforms and japanese anime. Its fast and frenetic, like contemporary media capitalism. It celebrates the heady pace of the postmodern media zietgiest.
Digital cinema, like the one upon a time costly and rare sound film is rapidly becoming a normal, commonplace thing. The beachhead digital effects “siliwood” films like “Terminator 2”, “Jurrassic Park”, “True Lies” etc have laid the ground for films like the “Fifth Element” which draw fully upon the technical and aesthetic precedents of earlier cyberpunk cinema as cultural reference points. Fifteen years after its release, the commercially unsuccesful “Blade Runner” is far away enough in time from us now to itself to be a historical marker, just as once “Citizen Kane” was considered a masterpiece twenty years after its completion. Blade Runner is definitely the masthead filmic cultural hub around which “The Fifth Element” swings, but the whole film is basically a game for people in my age bracket (34 years old) of “spot the sci fi blockbuster reference”.
The future New York of the film appears fleetingly, through mainly chase sequences, where we the viewer see through the eyes of people being chased. The now familiar motif of flying cars enable chases to happen in full surround sound 3 dimensions - cars can hover, or dive directly up or down. Traffic resembles that in “Back to the Future Part 2” where “Jetsons” style, hover cars (even styled to resemble 30s deco ideas of future cars) keep to their aerial lanes. Traffic in 300 years has become a kind of of bloodstream - a 3D circulatory system. Indeed one of the filmÕs most impressive sequences is that where a whole human figure is assembled from a dna sample extracted from a creature which has has crash landed on the moon. A kind of medical operating table extends tiny arms to literally build up a figure from nothing, rapidly adding flesh to a skeleton like dicing beef in reverse. The sections which constitute the figure are slices, resembling those which were scanned of the condemned man and later posted on the internet and released on cd-rom as the ghoulish but groundbreaking “Visible Human” project.
Humanity, this sequence seems to propose has by means of computers totally lost its physical origins and bearings. But instead of being a hindrance, in 300 years from now people have reversed this ethical technical dillemma to manufacture its population from both sythetic materials and pure information. People know how to construct clones as if making Mcburgers. As jurassic era dinosaurs are in contemporary Hollywood, future real characters are made to order. The physicality of the body is an extension of the city state whose technology has made this high speed fast food frankenstien monster a possibility. The rapid flow of floating cars (and in one scene a floating chinese junk selling food) is just like the rapid pace of dextrous robot fingers which construct a human from information and artificial tissue alone. The flying cars like corpuscles flying around the body. The city and body are one. Hence the central character can leap off a building and crash into a car and nothing goes wrong - its just the body floating through another body and melding with other bodies.
I wished in many ways the film had stopped being a chase movie long enough to ponder this fascinating place. Having set the scene, the film forces the viewer only to speed through it. I’d be interested to know if the script changed much during the production, and what role storyboards played. If “Fifth Element” is techno hardcore, I want the ambient mix.
Offering the viewer a kind of a la cart theme park ride through the future, “The Fifth Element” reminded me an awful lot of the Paul Verhoeven megamovie “Total Recall”. Like that film, the action often tended to get in the way of the story. Just as soon as you were starting to get into the yarn, someone pulls out a gun a blasts everything in site. Then inevitably a huge chase ensues, and so we’re back to theme park ride land again. You sometimes want the ride to stop long enough to enjoy the view.
Check out the “Fifth Element” but be sure to laugh with the movie at its own often very stupid jokes, in order to better enjoy the spectacle of a future which is all too familiar as our own postmodern, accelerated, full on techno hardcore urban digital speedfreak Xstatic western capitalist media driven cybercity of right here, right now.
David Cox, June 1997.