I remember renting Luc Besson's The Fifth Element shortly after its release on VHS and not being quite sure what to make of it. The crazy mix of science fiction, action and drama certain grew on me over the years, and this is now the third format on which I've owned this film. The Fifth Element offers the type of imaginative spectacle that rarely gets made these days, and, when it does, is at risk of losing its financiers a ton of cash (see Besson's recently released Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). With its spectacular effects and interesting performances from Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker, The Fifth Element is an entertaining thrill ride. Newly remastered and released on 4K Ultra HD, this is the closest approximation of the theatrical experience ever available for home viewing.
Korben Dallas (Willis) operates a flying taxicab, and is at risk of losing his license and livelihood due to his reckless driving. One day, a beautiful woman, Leeloo (Jovovich), literally falls into his cab, and he is thrust into an interplanetary adventure involving aggressive aliens, a mysterious fifth element and blue opera singers. Turns out Leeloo is this fifth element incarnate, and is the only thing capable of defeating a great evil that returns to earth every 5,000 years. Dallas works to guide Leeloo to friendly aliens the Mondoshawans, while Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Oldman) looks to turn her over to the evil Mangalores, who are working in tandem with the giant, foreboding ball of fire that represents the great evil. The film climaxes on a floating cruise ship, where entertainment personality Ruby Rhod (Tucker) thinks Dallas and Leeloo are contest winners on vacation.
It is hard to believe The Fifth Element is now twenty years old. Besson began development before releasing his critically acclaimed Léon: The Professional, but production was temporarily shuttered due to budget concerns and conflicts over the film's cast and tone. Sony agreed to release The Fifth Element after Léon took off, but was understandably concerned about the enormous budget and decidedly French sensibilities of the screenplay. Besson always wanted Willis for the role of Dallas but lost hope that he could afford the in-demand actor. After speaking with him before shooting, Willis told Besson that he would make it work, even if it meant taking a big pay cut. Notably, this feels like one of the last performances where Willis seems to be having fun.
The galaxy-spanning action and conflict of basic good versus evil is universal. Jovovich does not actually speak much in her role, but her performance is no less memorable. Tucker is hilarious as the over-the-top Rhod, and Oldman, fresh off his turn as a corrupt and coke-fueled DEA agent in Leon, is entertainingly off-kilter. If I have one slight criticism it is that the pacing is a bit lopsided. Somewhere around the midsection of this 126-minute film things start to drag, but the action picks back up again once the cruise sets sail. The Fifth Element is solid entertainment within a unique world packed with colorful characters. Twenty years in, it still thrills.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
This movie has been released dozens of times on various formats. There was VHS, regular DVD, Superbit DVD, the awful looking first Blu-ray, a remastered Blu-ray and a 4K remastered Blu-ray. Now, you get the film in its best possible format: 4K Ultra HD culled from a 4K remaster. I've given Sony a hard time in recent years for Blu-ray releases that, frankly, do not look as good as they should. Perhaps they've turned over a new leaf, because this 4K release looks incredible. This HEVC/H.265/2160p image is presented in the film's original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. From the opening minutes it is clear that this is a top-notch presentation. Early desert scenes are crystal clear, with beautiful detail and color. Grain remains consistent and film-like throughout, and fine-object detail is exceptional. Every grain of sand, temple hieroglyph and futuristic apartment appliance is visible with exceptional texture. The HDR pass offers bold, lifelike colors without giving the film an artificial appearance. Black levels are good, and shadow detail is abundant. By the time we get to the blue opera singer, the action nearly pops off the screen. The print is in fine shape, and, other than a very few halos around visual effects, this is an excellent transfer.
The disc offers a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which I sampled in 7.1 Dolby TrueHD. This immersive mix offers excellent effects panning, crystal clear dialogue and a perfectly integrated score. Each element is appropriately balanced, and the LFE is called upon to engage in gun battles and other action-oriented scenes. I noticed no issues with distortion or overcrowding, and this mix turned out to be a nice replication of the theatrical soundtrack. A French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mix are included, as are English, English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc release includes the 4K disc and a Blu-ray, and is packed in a black 4K Ultra HD case that is wrapped in a slipcover that features the original theatrical poster artwork. An insert offers a code to redeem an UltraViolet HD digital copy. In what I hope becomes a trend, Sony offers a newly produced extra on the 4K disc: The Director's Notes: Luc Besson Looks Back (10:29/4K), which is an interesting conversation with the director about this film and several of his other works. On the included Blu-ray disc you get a host of recycled extra features that dive into the production, casting and effects: The Visual Element (18:25/SD); The Visual Element Extras (6:09 total/SD); The Star Element: Bruce Willis (4:18/SD); The Star Element: Milla Jovovich (12:47/SD); The Star Element: Milla Jovovich Extras (12:01 total/SD); The Star Element: Chris Tucker (4:17/SD); The Alien Element: Mondoshawans (8:13/SD); The Alien Element: Mondoshawans Extras (3:21 total/SD); The Alien Element: Mangalores (9:47/SD); The Alien Element: Mangalores Extras (2:10 total/SD); The Alien Element: Picasso (4:16/D); The Alien Element: Strikers (3:04/SD); The Alien Element: Strikers Extras (1:30 total/SD); The Fashion Element (7:46/SD); The Fashion Element Extras (5:14 total/SD); The Diva (16:15/SD); The Diva Extras (8:02 total/SD); The Digital Element (9:48/SD); Imagining The Fifth Element (5:14/SD); The Elements of Style (5:13/SD); and a Fact Track that can be played over the film.
I think many folks would say The Fifth Element is one of their favorite science fiction films. And for good reason, as Luc Besson's film is thrilling, unique and memorable, with excellent effects and fun performances. Sony's 4K Ultra HD release receives top marks in picture and sound, and it offers one newly produced extra. Highly Recommended.