In Egypt, 1914, an archaeological expedition was investigating an ancient temple when a spaceship unexpectedly landed, aliens walked out and gave the priest protecting the site a key to pass down to his descendants for when the aliens would return in 300 years. Three hundred years later and planet Earth is under threat from a huge, dark, fiery globe that is heading its way, and the aliens are on course to return the fifth element which they took all those years before that will save mankind. Alas, there is a conspiracy afoot, and their spaceship is destroyed by agents of Zorg (Gary Oldman), a powerful businessman who is in league with the dark planet - the essence of evil itself. Who can save Earth now?
Exquisitely designed, The Fifth Element was written by the director Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, based on an earlier script by the 16-year-old Besson which had been heavily influenced by French comic books. So meticulously fashioned is the world that Besson offers that the plot takes some following on first viewing, but basically a small piece of the essential element is salvaged from the crashed space ship and from this is built a young woman, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) who represents our only hope. Well, her and a collection of four stones from the temple, which have been mislaid, and are being hunted down by Zorg.
Into all this arrives Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a taxi driver and ex-military man who has Leeloo land in the back of his cab. He is compelled to help her by his better nature, and he grows increasingly attached to her, even after he has delivered the nonsense-speaking woman to the latest in the line of priests, Cornelius (Ian Holm). To match the outlandish look and extensive special effects, the cast are well-chosen, and skillfully fit into the fantastical landscape of Besson's vision: Willis provides a steadfast centre for the plot to revolve around, Holm is nervous yet dedicated, and Jovovich manages to be authentically otherworldly.
You can tell the film was based on an adolescent story, not only because of the spacecraft, chases and mass destruction, but because it fills all the requirements of uncritical sci-fi. The hero is square jawed and a man of action, and he gets an innocent girlfriend from outer space. Then there's the simple philosophy, where everyone is divided into baddies and goodies, with a "love conquers all" message to save the day. Zorg deals in arms and thinks nothing of sacking a million employees at once, but the good guys have the vaguely spelt out religious backing of Cornelius and whatever God he represents.
God doesn't seem to be actively involved until the cherry scene where Zorg makes his outlook clear to Cornelius - chaos, destruction and evil are necessary to keep the world ticking away, to give everyone their place. But then the overconfident Zorg chokes on a cherry, and is only prevented from choking to death by the interventions of Cornelius - simple kindness is what makes the priest's world go round, even if it means saving the life of his enemy, and it seems there is a need for both sides of the coin. The tiny coincidences and apparently unrelated events that bring our heroes together look like the machinations of fate, or the supreme being that Leeloo represents.
However, the pure Leeloo can't help but notice that mankind leans more towards the destructive side, especially after witnessing the bullets flying and explosions happening around her, and she loses hope. Some viewers may have lost hope before then, because of the performance of an extrovert Chris Tucker playing DJ Ruby Rhod, a megastar who is aboard the cruise liner that the characters end up on in their search for the stones. I think he suits the over the top style, and in a film that sees New York City with miles-high buildings and flying cars, or a blue opera-singing alien, there is plenty of room for all the overacting by certain members of the cast. The Fifth Element may win your heart with its good humour and naively optimistic perspective, but if not, just enjoy those wonderful visuals. Music by Eric Serra.
[Extras on the Special Edition DVD include a new documentary, featurettes on the special effects, artist Jean-Claude Mezieres, the creation of the Diva and Jean-Paul Gaultier's costumes, trailers, footage of the Cannes party and a short essay on a possible sequel.]