The Fifth Element

fifth element

The Fifth Element‘ (‘Le Cinquième Élément’) is a 1997 English-language French science fiction film directed, co-written, and based on a story by Luc Besson. The film stars Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, and Milla Jovovich.

Mostly set during the twenty-third century, the plot involves the survival of planet Earth, which becomes the duty of Korben Dallas, a taxicab driver and former special forces Major, when a young woman falls into his taxicab. Upon learning about her significance, Dallas must join forces with her to recover four mystical stones essential to defending Earth from an impending attack.

Besson started writing the story that would become ‘The Fifth Element’ when he was 16 years old; he was 38 when the film opened in cinemas. Comic book writers Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières were hired for the film’s production design, and costume design was done by Jean-Paul Gaultier. The film polarized critics; it has been called both the best and worst summer blockbuster of all time (earning over $263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget). It was the most expensive European film ever made at the time of its release, and remained the most financially successful French film until the release of ‘The Intouchables’ in 2011.

The film opens in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Extraterrestrials known as Mondoshawans arrive at an ancient Egyptian temple to collect from a secret chamber, for safekeeping, the only weapon capable of defeating a Great Evil that appears every five thousand years. The weapon consists of four stones, representing the four classical elements, and a sarcophagus that contains a ‘Fifth Element’ in the form of a being, which combines the power of the other four elements into a ‘Divine Light.’ The Mondoshawans promise their human contact, a priest, they will return with the Elements in time to stop the Great Evil, but an accident forces them to give their key to the chamber to the priest and instruct him to pass it on to future generations until they return.

Three hundred years later, in the mid 23rd century, the Great Evil appears in space in the form of a giant ball of black fire and destroys an Earth battleship. The current holder of the Mondoshawan key, priest Vito Cornelius, informs President Lindberg of the history of the Great Evil and the weapon that can stop it. As the Mondoshawans return to Earth, they are ambushed by the shapeshifting Mangalores, the remnants of an outlawed, warlike alien race hired by the industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, who was himself hired by the Great Evil to acquire the element stones. The Mondoshawan’s spacecraft is destroyed and the only thing Earth scientists recover is the hand of the Fifth Element, which they use to construct a humanoid woman. Terrified of her unfamiliar surroundings, she escapes confinement and jumps off a ledge to land in the flying taxicab of Korben Dallas, a former major in the Special Forces.

She identifies herself as Leeloo to Dallas and he delivers her to Cornelius who learns that the four Element stones were entrusted to the alien Diva Plavalaguna, an opera singer. Because the Mangalores failed to obtain the stones, Zorg kills them, but their compatriots attempt to obtain the Elements for themselves. Upon learning from the Mondoshawans that Plavalaguna has the stones, General Munro, Dallas’ former commander, orders him to travel undercover, as a rigged radio contest winner, to meet the Diva on a luxury cruise in space. The publicity of the contest attracts the Mangalores and Zorg to the space liner. Dallas takes Leeloo with him, while Cornelius stows away aboard the vessel.

The Diva is killed when the Mangalores attack and take over the ship, but Dallas retrieves the Elements from the Diva’s body. He fights the Mangalores to liberate the ship, killing their leader. Zorg searches for the Elements; he shoots and seriously wounds Leeloo, before finding a carrying case. Assuming the elements are inside, he takes the case and leaves behind a time bomb that causes the liner’s occupants to evacuate. Zorg departs on his spacecraft but discovers the case to be empty, so he returns to search for the Elements. He deactivates the bomb, but a dying Mangalore activates his own bomb, destroying the ship and killing Zorg, while Dallas, Cornelius, Leeloo, and talk-show host Ruby Rhod escape with the Elements aboard Zorg’s spacecraft.

The four return to the weapon chamber at the Egyptian temple as the Great Evil approaches. The group arranges the stones; but Leeloo has become disenchanted with humanity after having come to witness the brutality of war and violence and refuses to release the Divine Light. Dallas confesses his love for Leeloo and kisses her. In response, Leeloo combines the power of the stones and releases the Divine Light, causing the Great Evil to become dormant as a new moon in Earth’s orbit. Earth scientists assure President Lindberg that the Great Evil is dead. Korben and Leeloo are brought in by scientists and placed together in a healing tank to recuperate. When the President arrives and demands to see them one of the scientists informs him that “they need … five more minutes”, as Korben and Leeloo have begun consummating their love.

In an interview Besson stated ‘The Fifth Element’ was not a ‘big theme movie,’ though the film’s theme was an important one. He wanted viewers to reach the point where Leeloo states: ‘What’s the use of saving life when you see what you do with it?,’ and agree with her. One review stated the film relied on the broad themes of, ‘human fallibility and perfection, evil, and the all-conquering power of love.’ Besson envisioned the entire world of the film as a teenager to escape boredom. He states he was waiting to build a reputation for himself as a filmmaker before he commenced production of the film, so that he would be able to make it with creative control.

Besson met Bruce Willis a few years before production started and talked about the project, though he later decided to instead search for a relatively unknown young actor for the role of Korben, so as to spend less on actors and more on sets, costumes and special effects. Willis approached Besson expressing he was still interested in the film, and after Besson explained the issue, Willis responded, ‘You know, Luc, if I like it, we will find a way.’ Willis made a deal with the production team for the role, a move which greatly pleased Besson. A casting call of 8,000 went out for the character Leeloo, and Besson chose Milla Jovovich from the 200–300 applicants he met in person.

He said, ‘Milla has this physical thing, she can be from the past or the future. She can be an Egyptian or a Roman. She can be Nefertiti and she can be from outer space. That was one thing I liked physically about her.’ Besson was in a relationship with Maïwenn Le Besco, who played the role of Diva Plavalaguna, for 6 years when filming commenced; however, he left her for Jovovich during filming. Jovovich and Besson were later married though they divorced in 1999. He chose to hire Gary Oldman, who had starred in his previous film, ‘Léon: The Professional,’ for the role of Zorg, describing Oldman as, ‘one of the top five actors in the world.’

The production design for the film was developed by French comics creators Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières. Mézières wrote the book ‘The Circles of Power,’ which features a character named ‘S’Traks,’ who drives a flying taxicab through the congested air traffic of the vast metropolis on the planet Rubanis. Besson read the book and was inspired to change the Dallas character to a taxicab driver who flies through a futuristic New York City. The ‘Divine Language’ spoken in the film is a fictional language with only 400 words, invented by Besson and Jovovich. Jovovich stated that she and Besson wrote letters to each other in the Divine Language as practice.

The films score was composed by Éric Serra. The music used for the taxicab chase scene, titled ‘Alech Taadi’ by Algerian performer Khaled, is excluded from the film soundtrack, but it is available on Khaled’s album ‘N’ssi N’ssi.’ The ‘Diva Dance’ opera performance featured music from Gaetano Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor: ‘Il dolce suono,” the mad scene of Act III, Scene 2, and was sung by Albanian soprano Inva Mula. ‘Part One’ (titled ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’) and ‘Part Two’ (titled ‘The Diva Dance’) of this piece are included as separate tracks on soundtrack, but are sequenced to create the effect of the entire performance seen in the film. The end of ‘Part One’ blends into the beginning of ‘Part Two,’ creating a smooth transition between the two tracks.

Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud sued Luc Besson after the film was released, claiming it had plagiarized their comic ‘The Incal.’ Giraud sued for 13.1 million euros for unfair competition, 9 million euros in damages and interest and for 2–5% of the net operating revenues of the film. Jodorowsky sued for 700,000 euros. The case was dismissed in 2004 on the grounds that only ‘tiny fragments’ of Giraud’s artwork had been used and also due to the fact that Giraud had been hired by Besson to work on the film before the allegations were made.


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