Colorful and almost comically energetic, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997) isn't the kind of movie that sits still very long. This entertaining sci-fi adventure is visually ambitious and features plenty of memorable lead and supporting performances, nearly all of which are cast perfectly within the film's kinetic, stylish universe. It's almost too much of a good thing at times, though: running just over two hours with a story that spans nearly 350 years, there's no shortage of stuff from start to finish; most of it's great, but some is just overcooked. Besson reportedly began writing the story at age 16, modifying and smoothing out the details during the next two decades...but for better or for worse, it's obvious that The Fifth Element manages to retain almost all of that youthful energy.
Aside from the more recent Lucy (meh), The Fifth Element has been Besson's biggest commercial smash in a career filled with modest hits, stylish detours, and floundering failures. Old and new fans alike were likely drawn towards the film's far-reaching production design and sci-fi scope, not to mention Milla Jovovich wrapped in about six feet of white gauze. She plays Leeloo, an eponymous human "element" and the key to stopping a mysterious black fireball that's appeared in deep space. Resurrected in 2263 and immediately confined to a research facility, the terrified Leeloo breaks through a wall, evades authorities on a window ledge, and free-falls through the roof of an airborne taxicab operated by Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). They're eventually aided by Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), who's been in contact with the alien allies guarding the sacred elements. In their way is weapons dealer and industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), not to mention an army of Mangalores who he hired to secure all five elements for his mustache-twirling benefit. But that's the short version: there's also an unforgettable blue opera singer, Egyptian temples, an intergalactic luxury cruise, and Chris Tucker turning the obnoxiousness up to 11.
So yep, this is pretty much a "love it or hate it" affair. Like most members of that lucrative 18-30 male demographic, I enjoyed The Fifth Element in theaters for all three reasons above. I still do, but not in the same way. This is obviously a personal story told by a director with no shortage of imagination; luckily, it was given a $90M budget (the highest for a French production at the time) that actually looks like most of it ended up right on the screen. Still, that nagging "more is less" complaint manages to rear its head during a few stretches: there's a lot to take in during one session, whether you view The Fifth Element as a straightforward sci-fi adventure, a unique fantasy film with no shortage of camp and comedy relief, or just a colorful thrill ride that doesn't need to take itself seriously.
From top to bottom, the performances are mostly committed for all the right reasons...and aside from one bit of terrible casting ("Tiny" Lister Jr. as President Lindberg is waaay out of place here), everybody fits like a glove. Milla Jovovich is an easy standout as the formidably flexible Leeloo, serving up a potent blend of impish charm and no-nonsense action. Ian Holm adds plenty of stammering authority to his quiet but authoritative character, while "Ruby Rhod" affords Chris Tucker the perfect vehicle to bug his eyes out and yell at everyone around him (I mean that as a compliment). Gary Oldman is give a similar chance to ham it up as the dastardly Zorg, serving up a much demonic but equally threatening performance as his unforgettable turn in Besson's Leon. Bruce Willis, of course, plays the sarcastic and put-upon straight man to a "T", bringing a necessary amount of physicality to his leading role.
Of course, the backgrounds offer plenty to look at too. Most of the film's visual effects by Digital Domain hold up fairly well for a film approaching the 20-year mark (the CG portions, obviously), while the first-rate production design by comic book icons and close friends Jean "Moebius" Giraud and Jean-Claude Mezieres doesn't skimp on color; neither do the costume designs by fashion guru Jean Paul Gaultier. As a whole, the universe created by Besson on and company is enough to carry The Fifth Element's weight even when the story has a little trouble...but if you're just in the mood for just over two hours of non-stop insanity, you won't find much to complain about here.
The Fifth Element has a long and ridiculous history on home video. Rivaling Terminator 2 and the Evil Dead franchise for sheer market saturation, it's been released so many times that even casual fans had to have picked it up at some point. From the original 1997 DVD (yes, 1997) to the 2001 Superbit and 2005 Ultimate Edition, plus a troublesome 2006 Blu-ray which was re-issued in 2007 due to obvious quality issues...not to mention a number of international releases in both formats. The point is that Sony's shiny new "Mastered in 4K" edition (also available separately as part of the studio's "Supreme Cinema Series" line with deluxe packaging, as if we weren't confused enough already) aims to be the hands-down definitive package...and until the next format gets going, it's certainly close enough.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
The re-issued Blu-ray scored high marks...but it's been eight years, so back to the well we go. This "Mastered in 4K" disc obviously makes use of a fresh new 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer and also features slightly different color timing than earlier editions...but unlike the remastered Aliens and Terminator Blu-rays, everything looks a little more yellow this time around. That's not a complaint, mind you: more than likely, previous editions (especially on DVD) were less accurate, but what's here isn't exactly a night-and-day difference anyway. What does show an objective amount of improvement is the high degree of image detail, texture levels, film grain, and less contrast boosting that gives The Fifth Element a more natural appearance than ever. It's a fine effort in every department and one that fans will appreciate...and if you're like me and haven't seen it since the DVD years, you'll be even more impressed.
NOTE: The screen captures used on this page are sourced from promotional outlets and do not represent the title under review.
The default Dolby Atmos audio track (which automatically unfolds to a TrueHD 7.1 mix if your receiver doesn't support the new format) adds more than enough weight to give The Fifth Element a formidable presence from start to finish. Surround activity is very frequent with strong separation, plenty of LFE punch, a strong dynamic range, and crystal-clear dialogue that's balanced fairly well for smaller home theater setups. There's obviously a lot going on during the film and this Blu-ray will most certainly keep your ears fully entertained. French (TrueHD 5.1) and Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1) dubs are also included during the main feature, as well as English, SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The plain-wrap interface looks simple enough, but I don't like how the extras are dumped onto a long, horizontal list: it's redundant at times, especially due to the way they're named. This one-disc release arrives in a standard keepcase with a matching slipcover and stylish disc art; a Digital Copy
redemption slip is also tucked inside.
Plain and simple, everything of interest from the fairly packed Ultimate Edition DVD has been carried over...which is nice, as both previous Blu-rays omitted just about everything. I'll default to that review link for a detailed run-down of these recycled extras, but we're basically treated to five Featurette Groups (covering production design, effects, the cast, the alien characters, and the costume design, with several parts in each section), plus another Featurette about "The Diva" and a feature-length Fact Track with plenty of trivial tidbits. While it's nice to have everything from the Ultimate Edition, it's unfortunate that nothing new has been added here (especially an audio commentary).
Luc Besson's stylish and wildly ambitious The Fifth Element can be a lot of fun, as long as you're willing to go along for the ride. Featuring equal parts camp, comedy, drama, fantasy, and adventure, it rarely sits still and can be more than a little exhausting at just over two hours. But it's aged a little better than expected, most likely due to the committed performances of the cast and the fully-realized world that's been created. Sony's "Mastered in 4K" Blu-ray rights a few wrongs of earlier editions, serving up a top-notch A/V presentation and all the bonus features that were left out of both previous high-def releases. It's as close to a definitive edition that we've gotten so far...so unless you're willing to wait for the official 4K release in a year or two, this is a no-brainer for die-hard fans. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.