The Fifth Element
Sony Pictures // PG-13 // $28.95 // June 20, 2006
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted July 10, 2006
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The Movie:
Luc Besson's fizzy, Europop sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element has been a popular home video staple for good reason. Its brightly colored, comic book production design and over-the-top visual effects make transfixing home theater eye candy. Even more importantly, the movie is gloriously goofy entertainment that never takes itself seriously for a second. Bruce Willis stars in the typical Bruce Willis action hero role, trapped inside an unabashedly cornball spectacle featuring flying cars, alien monsters, lots of explosions, a hot chick who kicks ass, and an impending apocalypse of pure evil that can only be defeated by love, man, true love. How freakin' awesome is that? The director first conceived the movie when he was still in high school, and some 20-odd years later made absolutely certain not to dilute the purity of that original geeky vision by watering it down with things like serious adult drama or good taste. Thank heavens. The movie is brash, loud, juvenile, and loads of fun.

I won't waste time recapping the plot, because odds are that most reading this have seen the movie a dozen or so times. Part of the enjoyment is that the film is just so fascinating to look at. Practically every frame is cluttered with little details that take several viewings to notice, and the whole thing has a distinctly European flavor in refreshing contrast to the generally dour, distopian future we see in most American science fiction movies. Although it steals liberally from and shamelessly spoofs the likes of Blade Runner and Star Wars, The Fifth Element is clearly a natural extension of famous Euro cheesefests Barbarella or Danger: Diabolik. The genius of its visual design is that it was always intended to look hokey. A decade after its original release, the overabundance of cartoony CGI hardly feels dated at all because of the way Besson seamlessly integrates it with the comic book-styled, pop art sets and crazy costumes by Jean 'Moebius' Giraud.

Bruce Willis anchors the film as the world-weary, sardonic cabbie-turned-universe-saving-hero, and of course delivers solid work as always. But the movie really belongs to Milla Jovovich as the alien superweapon Leeloo. Sexy, tough, vulnerable, dangerous, amazingly graceful, and did I mention sexy? all at once, even though half her dialogue is in a made-up gobbledygook language Jovovich sells every second of it. She can break your heart crying in one scene and have you cheering as she kicks butt in another, and she looks amazing doing it all. Her scene standing on a building ledge in a costume made of flimsy bandage strips instantly achieved iconic status the moment the movie premiered. The model/actress seems to specialize in headlining high-priced B-movies, of which this certainly qualifies, and does a good job of it in most, but has never been better than the way Besson (her husband at the time) tailors this film to her. Respected character actor Ian Holm also looks to be enjoying himself as the bumbling priest who knows Leeloo's secrets, and Gary Oldman absolutely hams it up to heart's content as the main villain. I'll even say that Chris Tucker's obnoxious radio DJ Ruby Rhod (often compared unfavorably to Jar Jar Binks by many) is a perfect fit for Besson's outlandish universe.

The Fifth Element is a ridiculous movie, to be sure, and its rampant silliness may rub some the wrong way, but if you can tune into the right wavelength its entertainment value can't be beat. It's the type of movie you want to watch again as soon as you've finished, and will find yourself constantly cueing up favorite scenes to use as demo material. It plays even better at home than it did in the theater, and as such has made perfect fodder for every home video format since its original release.

The Blu-ray Disc:
The Fifth Element debuts on the Blu-ray format as one of the premiere launch titles from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Blu-ray discs are packaged in keepcases the same size and basic shape of those for HD DVD discs (slightly shorter and thinner than typical DVD packaging), but molded in translucent blue plastic to distinguish the formats. The Fifth Element cover uses the same hideous Photoshop montage as Sony's Ultimate Edition DVD.

Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

Video:
The Fifth Element Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

The Superbit and Ultimate Edition DVDs of this movie are often cited as popular demo material for the Standard Definition format due to their sharp image and popping colors. The movie has a very vibrant and eye-catching photographic style, so you'd expect it to likewise showcase the wonders of High Definition video. Sadly, not so much. The disc is kind of a mess. When a brand new video format can't even get The Fifth Element to look good, something is seriously wrong.

First, let me say what the disc does well. The Blu-ray has really amazing colors, even richer and deeper than the DVD. The movie is an explosion of primary reds, yellows, and oranges, and they all pop right off the screen exactly as they should. I'll give it credit for that. The picture also has a lot less edge enhancement than the DVD, though some is still present here and there. If we were judging it by DVD standards, I'd say that the image is fairly crisp and pleasing. However, judging it by HD standards is a different story.

The single most shocking disappointment of this Blu-ray disc is seeing the poor condition of the film elements used for the video transfer. Sections of the movie are covered in dirt and scratches, and even the best-looking parts exhibit random speckles every few minutes. It seems like the most replayable scenes (the opening, Leeloo's first encounter with the future world, etc.) are in the worst shape, as though the print had accumulated wear and tear from being used too often to cut trailers and demo reels. The video for a disc like this should have been transferred from a pristine internegative source. I'm not sure what they actually used, but it's certainly been around the block too many times. I compared this Blu-ray against the Ultimate Edition DVD and was surprised to also see a lot more dirt on that older disc than I remembered, but still nowhere near as much as this copy. The Blu-ray is not transferred from the same HD master as the DVD, but perhaps it should have been. If Sony was going to the trouble of striking a new master, you'd think they might want to make it better than the old one, not worse.

That isn't the only problem, sadly. By HD standards the video looks very filtered and pasty. The image is rather flat, without much sense of depth. Sharpness and detail are on the whole only modestly better than the DVD edition, and in selected shots I actually found the DVD to have better fine object detail. For example, after the opening credits the first pan down to the Egyptian excavation site is positively fuzzy on the Blu-ray but better focused on the DVD. Also, during the scenes in Father Cornelius' apartment, the individual strands of Leeloo's hair are rendered with better clarity on the DVD; that section of the frame just sort of blurs together on the Blu-ray. This isn't the case with every shot, of course; most do indeed look better on the Blu-ray, but the fact that any parts of the movie could look better on the lower-resolution video format is disturbing. And the fact that even the best parts of the new disc barely look like High Definition at all is just disheartening.

The movie runs over two hours and has been squeezed onto a single-layer disc with inefficient MPEG2 compression and a space-hogging PCM audio track. The digital compression is not always up to the task. The opening credits look rather shimmery (they do on the DVD as well, for that matter), and minor compression noise is sometimes visible in the busiest of scenes. The artifacts are certainly nowhere near as bad as the worst DVDs (think of that infamous Highlander release), but nor is this a reference quality demo. For a launch title intended to sell the benefits of the new format, it's almost an embarrassment. If Sony wants us to believe that Blu-ray is superior to the competing HD DVD format, they've got a long way to go. The Fifth Element Blu-ray barely reaches the quality of a mediocre HD DVD, and is utterly shamed by that format's best releases.

[Update: Conceding their error and responding to consumer complaints, Sony issued a much better remastered Blu-ray edition of The Fifth Element in July of 2007.]

The Fifth Element Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality (or at least what passes for it on this disc) over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.

The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative or reference purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate Blu-ray picture quality.

Audio:
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. The film has a very aggressive surround mix with a bouncy musical score, lots of bass, and many discrete directional effects zipping around through every speaker. The DTS track on the Ultimate Edition DVD sounds terrific, and in theory an uncompressed PCM version of the same mix ought to blow the roof off your house. For some reason, it really doesn't. Truthfully, I found the DVD's DTS track to be significantly more robust and full bodied, while the Blu-ray's PCM sounds thin and dull in comparison.

I'll admit that with only one Blu-ray player currently available (the Samsung BD-P1000), this could be a hardware problem with that player's audio section. Yet I don't think that's entirely the case, since I was much more impressed with the PCM track on the House of Flying Daggers Blu-ray. Perhaps the fact that the "uncompressed" PCM has actually been downsampled to 16-bit resolution from the original 24-bit master plays a bigger role, though again that should have also affected the Flying Daggers disc if that were the issue. I'm left assuming that it's just a poor mastering job on this particular disc. Don't get me wrong, it's far from terrible. I was just very surprised (unpleasantly once again) to find the Blu-ray's audio inferior to the DVD.

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, or Thai.
Alternate language tracks - French DD 5.1

Extras:
Only one of the supplements from the Ultimate Edition DVD has carried over.

  • Trivia Fact Track - This is really all they had the space for? Are you kidding me? For what it's worth, the pop-up interface is a lot nicer-looking than the subtitles on the DVD. The writer of the trivia notes has an annoying affectation of referring to the movie's actors by their first names as if he was a friend, but can't ever seem to remember the name of "the director".
That's it for content related to the film, though we do get HD previews for two unrelated Sony movies. Missing from the DVD edition are six production featurettes and a photo gallery.

No interactive features have been included, but it's worth noting that the Java-based disc menus can be accessed while the movie is still playing, much like the HDi menus on HD DVD discs. The booklet included in the disc case advertises a function called Blu-Wizard that allows you to "customize the way you watch special features to provide a unique viewing experience". The booklet instructs you to select "Blu-Wizard" on the disc's main menu, but in fact there is no such option anywhere on the disc that I could find. Whoops.

Easter Eggs:
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns. Please note that due to an error in the Sony encoder used to author the disc, blacker-than-black and whiter-than-white portions of the video signal have been clipped, essentially rendering the Brightness and Contrast calibration patterns useless.

Final Thoughts:
A disc that should have been a home run barely gets to first base. The Fifth Element is still an enormously fun movie, and this premiere Blu-ray release does for the most part look somewhat better than the DVD edition, but as a launch title for a new supposedly high-end video format the disc truly disappoints with its dirty, filtered video and weak audio. The movie's a blast, so it saddens me that I can't recommend it. I think most fans of the movie will find the Ultimate Edition DVD more satisfying overall, and those hoping for great High Definition video will have to keep looking.

Related Articles:
The Fifth Element (Remastered Blu-ray)
Dazed and Confused (HD DVD) - Milla Jovovich
16 Blocks (HD DVD) - Bruce Willis
UltraViolet (Blu-ray) - Jovovich
HD Review Index
Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray Player



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