Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pearls Before Swine

The Fifth Element
Spoiler Warning

In past Pearls posts (pow! a particularly punchy post premiere) I've brought you my thoughts on movies that were generally beloved by my peers, but not at all by me. Here I unveil the flip side of this feature: movies that I love, that my peers seem to be completely uninterested in. I felt that this particular movie would be a good choice for this unveiling, as it's the second movie I thought of when I originally conceived of these features, and because the advertised-to-death Willis vehicle Cop Out opens today. What better way to tie both together then with Luc Besson's flamboyant space opera- The Fifth Element.
I was unsure how I would go about a version of this post where I'm discussing movie I loved. 'How will I keep this from just being stump speech about how much I love said movie?' I asked me. And then I realised: Why bother? All the entries prior to this have just been tirades about why I didn't movies other people loved. It's only fair that I expose my tender cinematic heart and dote over my own favorites, possibly to my detriment when it comes comment time.
It's hard for me to say where this movie falls in the hearts of my chronological peers (which is to say: "people my age") because everyone I know that's my age have seen it at least once, that time being when they saw it because they were forced to watch it by me. Honestly I wouldn't be surprised to find out that most people either hate it, have forgotten about it, or never saw it in the first place. For the latter pair, I say it's their loss. But as for the Haters, I find myself wondering what their number one complaint would be? In the end, I went with the review I've heard from countless (past girl-) friends. "It's silly."
It is kind of "silly". Even as a fan I have to admit that. And I don't mean just one small scene, clowns throwing pies silly. No Sir (or ma'am)! I'm talking about leading up to a bomb going off, a spaceship launching, and a woman orgasming with the same countdown silly. I'm talking about a flying car in the shape of an ancient Chinese fishing boat silly. I'm talking about a fight scene choreographed to alien techno-opera silly. But, in it's defense, sometimes silly can be cool, if not at least entertaining. Look at Evel Kenevel.
The entire movie is over the top, and obviously so. That it's purposefully so is true- but for many people that's no excuse. I just don't happen to be one of them. The Fifth Element is definitely a niche movie. Willing to sacrifice it's general appeal (at least in our culture) in an attempt to further endear itself to the target audience... though admittedly I have no idea who that would be. The comedy hounds? The action chasers? Or is it a movie meant for people who have an innate taste for the weird?
Any way you might choose, I thin we can all agree that one of the main crowds drawn are the science fiction fans. Though many purists are probably put off by some of it's approaches. Personally I think Bessons purposeful avoidance of some of the "mainstream" sci-fi pitfalls make up a lot of what drew me to this movie in the first place; the big three concepts I've been hoping to see the sci-fi paradigm shift towards.
1.) It doesn't always have to be dark. I love a great many movies that are, don't get me wrong. But not every ship has to have dripping chains and long sterile corridors. The cities don't have to be grey exercises in depression.
2.) Good science fiction is culturally subtle, and pays attention to details. How many times do you watch in amazement as your microwave turns something from hot to cold? You don't, because chances are you grew up with one- it's old news. Whatever piece of mind bending technology that would forever alter your life you're watching them use on the screen, for them, might well be an everyday thing as common in their society as a combustion engine in ours. Anyone can make up some convoluted form of space travel, but will they consider the progression of cigarettes? Good science fiction writers/directors do, and their creations are better for it.
3.) It speaks on the world. For me, good science fiction is, a least in part, satire. It speaks on the contemporary world by bringing hyperbole to it's flaws, quirks, and trends. The progression of pollution, the tiny but abundant housing, the effeminacy of men in entertainment, the progression (and ridiculousness) of fashion, relations with foreign cultures, even the slang; it's portrayal in movies like this, when analysed, speaks volumes on our everyday lives. And those are only a few examples.
Of course, to pull of this off you need spot on art direction and production design, which this movie offers in droves. It makes the best of what it has in terms of CG, giving decent offerings for 1997- though it has no fear of accomplishing things by other means, which helps a lot. Many directors have a fear of props and prosthetics, Besson is smart to embrace it.
And then of course, there's the cast. And I can see where this one might be a bit divisive. On the one hand you have two heavy hitters, Ian Holme and Gary Oldman. Ian Holme had already unknowingly cemented himself in fiction history as Alien's Ash in 1979 (something he would do again -this time with knowledge before hand- in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) while Gary Oldman was still building the legacy he enjoys today- though he was already off to a good start with lead roles in movies like Immortal Beloved, Dracula (where his performance was critically acclaimed though the movie definitely was not), and another of Besson's more generally beloved titles, The Professional. Then, on the other hand, you have Chis Tucker, who can be detestable even at his best- which happens to be playing the annoying motor-mouth.
The main leads are played by Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, both of whom were were probably worth a bit more in 1997. Willis' career has certainly seen it's highs and lows since, though he seems to be a bit of a comeback king; falling off the public interest radar only to burst back on the scene again. All the while Jovovich made attempts at being an action hero, only to still be paying back the borrowed capital from her failed ventures to this day.
This is the beauty of 1997 however: Holme was already a legend. Willis was a barely blemished A-Lister. Oldman was on the verge and Milla Jovovich was an up and coming. Heck even Chis Tucker still had a career back then, fresh off the poignant Dead Presidents and the widely popular Friday. The Fifth Element is sort of a funny snapshot in history in terms of it's ensemble, as they all taken hugely different paths since, but at that time were on top, or quickly climbing the ladder. And they gel nicely, mixing drama and blatant slapstick as strong team. I would certainly refrain from making "best ever" comparisons (there is a gaping void between "favorites" and "bests") but as an ensemble piece, The Fifth Element is no slack.
But enough about me, what do the dollars say? The Fifth Element was made on a budget of $80 Million dollars, a record for independant productions at the time. According to, it went on to gross over $263 million, that's more than three times it's budget for the calculationally impaired. And while there's a grain of salt there in terms of it's U.S. earnings being less 25% of that0 it still makes the movie a large success. And then you have the awards. It of course received the perfunctory sound effects Oscar nod (or as I like to call it the "sure your movie was fantastic but we refuse to acknowledge your genre as art" award), but even beyond that it garnered a great deal of accolades.
Other nominations include: Five Saturn awards including best film, A Golden Satellite, A European film award, A Hugo, Five Cesars, and a golden Reel. And then there are the awards it actually won: A British Academy for Film and Television Arts award for best special effects. A Golden Screen, A Bogey Award: Silver (FYI: Bogey's are given like Xbox 360 achievements to movies for having a certain number of people view the movie in a certain number of days. Silver is 2 million in twenty days), Three Cesars for cinematography, production design, and last but not least, best director- for which Besson also won a Lumiere award.
...There's not a whole lot I can say after a list like that. I trust we can agree that The Fifth Element just might be a pearl. So if your one of those who's forgotten it, or never seen it- why not give it a try? And if your a hater, but it's been a while, maybe there's room for second chances? It would seem the numbers and the awards say it there is. You'll have to let me know what happens in the comments area. As for me, it's one of my old standards- perched on our floating shelves with others of it's kind like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Sneakers. But I guess those are titles for another post.

1 comment:

Kello said...

This movie went way over my head. I know I've seen it twice,and those were a long time ago, but both times I just had no idea what was happening. I just remember something about being able to see the girl's bare chest and no one caring (hey we were 13, that was crazy to me!), and then Luke Perry showing up.

I think because you were always so big on it, I felt like there was some deeper value that I was missing. Reading your list of reasons helps me understand it quite a bit. The whole idea of how the smaller things (like cigarettes) will change is a great point about sci-fi that I never really took the time to fully consider.

For me, the annoying silent ADHD of Jovavich and the annoyingly overt flamboyant ADHD of Tucker bug me to the point of disinterest.