The Fifth Element (Special Edition) Review

We all have those movies which we consider to be “guilty pleasures”; those movies we know aren’t really that good and yet for some reason we love them. For me, The Fifth Element is most certainly in that category. On the face of it, it’s just a dumb science fiction movie, another “Bruce Willis saves the world… again” action flick. So what makes it so much better than that? What elevates it up to one of my favourite films?

Well, it’s certainly not the plot. A set of stones that represent the four elements (fire, water, earth, wind) – when combined with a mysterious “fifth element” - are the key to the protection of earth from ultimate evil. In early twentieth century Egypt the stones are collected by the Mondoshawan race and taken for safe-keeping for when evil returns. Fast forward 300 years and evil has indeed returned, in the shape of a planet-like entity on course to destroy the earth. Priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) assures the President that the Mondoshawan will return with the stones to save the Earth. En route though, they are ambushed by Mangalores, mercenaries working for the evil Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) who wants the stones for himself. But from the Mondoshawan wreckage a new life is cloned in Leeloo (Milla Jovovich); escaping the clutches of the scientists who "created" her she falls literally into the cab of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Leeloo is the key to preventing the evil forces from their destruction; but she needs help, so together with Dallas they battle to retrieve the stones and repel evil.

So far, so corny, so “this must be bad”. What turns it around is its overwhelming sense of style and presence. The visuals come from the imagination of director Luc Besson and such people as French comic strip artist Jean Claude Mézières, which gives the film a very European style. The design of ships and aliens is very different from the traditional Star Wars or Star Trek derivatives many science fiction films use, which gives it a very unique feel. And many of the scenes are simply breathtaking; when Leeloo steps out onto the ledge of a skyscraper and into the mass of flying traffic of 23rd century New York, it is simply an incredibly beautiful piece of cinema. Likewise, the Fhloston Paradise cruise liner is a stunning creation. Add to this the outlandish costume designs provided by Jean-Paul Gaultier and this is simply a beautiful film to look at. And to top it off it's all complemented by one of Eric Serra's most hauntingly beautiful scores.

It’s not just style and no substance though. Despite the corny script the story moves along nicely, and there are plenty of decent action sequences, especially the shoot-out in the Fhloston. For the acting, Gary Oldman’s Zorg is a suitably over-the-top bad guy, Bruce Willis does what he does best, and Milla Jovovich is perfect as the girl who can save the world from ultimate evil.

Of course I did say I regarded this as a “guilty pleasure” so then there are a few more flaws to mention. The original story was written by director Luc Besson when he was just sixteen, and it shows. Big time. Who else but a sixteen year old boy would come up with a story about a beautiful girl as the key to saving the world, aided only by a cool hero? And then there’s Ruby Rhod, played by the always noisy Chris Tucker. Here his DJ / presenter / media star character is so annoying he almost ruins the entire second half of the movie. Almost but fortunately not quite. Finally, Besson’s decision to cast many supporting and bit part roles with musicians and models results in some pretty ropey acting in many places.

Despite all the flaws of the movie, despite the fact that all things considered this film should really be terrible, its style and presence not only save it, but turn it into something special. Its set pieces are pure cinema spectacular, its look and feel unique and beautiful. And it’s fun and entertaining. It may be a big dumb movie, but I love it.

The Disc
This is by no means the first time that this film has been released on DVD. A basic version has been available in region 2 for some time, and a “Superbit” version has also been available in region 1. However, this is the first time that a genuine “special edition” has been available (in the UK), combining high quality re-mastering of the movie with a large selection of extra material.

First though, a word about the menus. An effort has been made on disc 1 to give it a menu system that’s a bit different (see below), and in that they have succeeded. The menu recreates the flying cab descent sequence from the movie and basically you look out for the option you want (play movie, audio setup, etc) to come flying past and click “Enter” on your remote when it does. As fun as it looks in reality it’s just plain annoying, and perhaps menu designers should remember that simplicity usually works best.

A little bit of print damage is visible in the opening sequence; after that there are no further complaints about this transfer. This is a very bright and colourful movie, and it is all represented very well here.

This movie has always fared pretty well in the sound department, as even the original basic edition of this movie had a very good Dolby Digital track. The subsequent Superbit version added DTS, and this edition also includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. The DTS track in particular here is outstanding. This is a movie awash with sound effects, whether it is the roar of the New York traffic, the ship’s horn of the Fhloston Paradise, huge explosions or simply tannoy announcements. They all sound absolutely spectacular; this is a true demonstration quality mix.

Previous releases of The Fifth Element weren’t exactly over-burdened with extra material. The first release in region 2 had just a brief featurette, and of course the “Superbit” editions famously shun extras altogether. This time we have a two disc set, though unfortunately it’s not quite as comprehensive as it could have been. The extras are:

Disc 1 Extras
The only extra on the film disc is a Visual effects commentary featuring Digital Domain people Mark Stetson, Karen E Goulekas, Bill Neil and Ron Gress. Obviously they are best placed to talk about the specific effects that they worked on, and although they did spend a lot of time on set and so can comment on other aspects of the film, much of the scenes without effects are limited to comments like “that was a great scene”. Certainly good for info on the effects, but a commentary from Luc Besson and members of the cast is sorely missed here.

Disc 2 Extras
The centrepiece of the second disc material is a fifty minute documentary entitled Discovering The Fifth Element. This covers all elements of the movie and is broken down into five sections. The first looks at the evolution of the script, from Besson’s stories he wrote at sixteen, through to development into a working screenplay. Next, the design features Besson’s liaison with some of France’s leading comic strip artists to build the look and feel of the movie. Also included here is Jean Paul Gaultier talking about his costume designs. Production follows the casting and then filming of the movie; special effects then moves into the post production addition of CG effects. Finally the release section remembers the premiere and the success of the movie when it was first released in cinemas. Except for a voice-over which feels a bit “kids TV” and the occasional but inevitable gushy love-ins for the director, this is an otherwise informative and entertaining documentary.

The next four featurettes are a lot shorter, all clocking in at around five to six minutes each, and could really be viewed as extensions to sections of the main documentary. Imagining The Fifth Element delves deeper into the special effects design, talking to people at Digital Domain who created the imagery, always in close consultation with Luc Besson. In The art of Jean Claude Mézières the graphic artist who designed the look and feel of the movie talks through the conceptual art and its application in the finished film. The diva sequence is examined in An audience with Diva Plavalaguna; from the design and “construction” of the diva herself, through to performing and filming in Covent Garden. Finally, Elements of Style features further interviews with Jean Paul Gaultier, looking at the extravagant costume designs he did for the movie.

Almost as long as the main documentary (but not nearly as relevant) is The Cannes Opening Night Party. An MTV special from when the movie premiered in Cannes, this features the premiere party and Gaultier fashion show. A few brief chats with director and stars, but also a significant chunk is taken up with the Neneh Cherry performance at the party. Nice that they tracked this down to put it onto the disc, but probably the least essential of all the extras here.

The Trailers and TV Spots section features both the teaser and full theatrical trailers for the movie, and five US television spots, featuring an appallingly cheesy voice-over.

Print is a (very brief) gallery of conceptual art, cinema posters and publicity material for the film. Finally The Sixth Element is a short essay about the original story that Besson derived the movie from, and how there was plenty enough material to make a sequel.

DVD-ROM Content
Unfortunately there is no ROM content available.

Final Thoughts
This is a fun “guilty pleasure” of a movie which, despite its many flaws, is one of my favourite movies. The presentation of the movie is technically first-rate, especially in the audio department. Although there are more extras here than ever before, the lack of a commentary from anyone other than the special effects people means it can’t quite be called the definitive version. Still, even if you already own any of the previous editions of this film, if you are a fan this new version is well worth purchasing. If you don’t yet have a really big widescreen television and a really powerful DTS sound system to go with your DVD player, this is as good a reason as any to upgrade.

9 out of 10
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