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The Fifth Element (review)

One Man’s Guide to Women

The Fifth Element, writer/director Luc Besson’s science fiction odyssey, opens with a compelling and intriguing prologue set in Egypt in 1914. Deep in a desert tomb, an archeologist has made an astounding discovery: The four elements that the ancients believed made up the world — earth, air, fire, and water — when combined with some mysterious fifth element, produce a weapon capable of destroying Ultimate Evil. And then a group of cool-looking aliens arrives at the tomb for No Apparent Reason except to demonstrate that this weapon is actually of alien design and to let drop that the weapon will be needed in three hundred years.

At this point, I suspected The Fifth Element was gonna turn out to be a bunch of claptrap, and I was right. It’s a visually stunning film, to be sure — I’m a sucker for gorgeous spaceships and gorgeous spacescapes — but ultimately it’s a strange brew of Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Douglas Adams, mixed with a lot of pseudoreligious, pseudoscientific nonsense.

After Egypt, the film jumps — hey! — three hundred years into the future. The aforementioned Ultimate Evil is now on its way toward Earth in the form of a giant ball of fire — it’s bent on destroying all life as we know it, for No Apparent Reason. The nice aliens from the prologue send a spooky alien chick, Lelou (Milla Jovovich), to help save Earth. With the help of Corbin Dallas (Bruce Willis) — a New York City cab driver who comes to her aid for, say it with me, No Apparent Reason — Lelou tracks down a funky old priest (Ian Holm), whose brethren have served the aliens lo these many years. They all go off in search of the stones that represent the four elements, hopefully in time to save Earth, racing a nasty corporate type, Zorg (Gary Oldman, doing a weird Southern accent), who wants the stones for himself for, yep, No Apparent Reason. And then there’s that pesky fifth element…

I’m not quite sure what The Fifth Element is pretending to be about, but what it’s actually about is an extended riff on how men deal with women. (To be fair, I should say “how one man, Luc Besson, deals with women,” but it all sounds so tediously familiar.)

Corbin Dallas, we learn the moment we meet him, is searching for the perfect woman. Coincidentally, Lelou, the spooky alien chick, is a “perfect” being, according to the priest; she’s the savior of “mankind” (not “humankind,” but “mankind”). But even though she’s perfect, incredibly strong, and kicks some major ass, she needs the help of Corbin, a mere mortal. Lesson One: The perfect woman is out there, and she’s looking for an ordinary schmoe just like you.

The other women in The Fifth Element are all but silent — an aide to the president of Earth, a secretary to Zorg — with the glaring exception of Corbin’s mother, whose screeching voice we are constantly subjected to as she bitches over the phone to him about what a miserable child he is. Lesson Two: Women should be seen and not heard.

Clothing appears optional for women in this little fantasy world. Lelou spends a good chunk of the movie wearing nothing but some strategically placed straps. A group of flight attendants sport the most impractical and revealing uniforms I’ve ever seen. Even the gorgeous servers at McDonald’s have deep cleavage (like fashion models work in the fast food industry). Lesson Three: Men may dress for comfort and practicality while women should be as naked as possible.

One particularly egregious sequence cuts between a man making love to a woman and a spaceship pilot running through a preflight checklist preparing for takeoff, suggesting that bringing a woman to orgasm is no different than running a machine. Lesson Four: There are mechanical tricks to satisfying a woman sexually; don’t believe her when she says emotional involvement is necessary.

Oh, the list is endless, but you get the picture. These kinds of attitude are really getting old. If you’re gonna be a pig, at least be original about it.


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The Fifth Element (1997) | directed by Luc Besson
US/Can release: May 09 1997
UK/Ire release: Jun 06 1997

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, some sexuality and brief nudity
BBFC: rated PG

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • rebeccaj

    I found it very soothing to find that you reacted to Armageddon with such distaste, because I had much the same response to The Fifth Element when I saw it (all together: as movies should be seen, in a big theater with big sound — the horror, the horror) last summer. I could not believe that any intelligent or even half-intelligent movie critic of either gender could give this film a decent review: I must say my respect for Roger Ebert dropped about ten notches after I sat through that abominable movie.

    It was a bad enough crime to waste Gary Oldman’s considerable talent on such a role (though perhaps Oldman should share equal blame for having agreed to participate; and then there’s the still more puzzling presence of Ian Holm — but I digress), but by far the worst and most traumatic experience for me as a viewer was the crude objectification of every single woman in the film (with the possible exception of the tall blue opera singer, but I don’t think she counts). I do not consider myself a feminist as such, and have in fact been known to argue with feminist acquaintances, but I swear, this movie was enough to make me want to march somewhere and burn something, even if I had to link arms with Gloria Steinem to do it. Was there not a single woman crammed into one of those grotesque Gaultier outfits, or in any way involved in the production of this film, who was willing to speak up about it? I can’t even believe this movie got made, let alone hyped the way it was.

    The male friend with whom I saw the movie, bless his soul, felt exactly the same way I did. We decided, as a matter of fact, that for all intents and purposes we had not seen this movie and would do our very utmost to forget it. The fact that I still feel the need to vent about it more than a year later says something for how deeply I was affected by Luc Besson’s adolescent vision. On the whole, I think Bill the Cat said it best: ACK!

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • [spoiler]

    I would argue that The Fifth Element‘s diva was just as much as an object as the other women. Not only did she have to die to serve the movie’s purpose (giving up the stones to Bruce Willis), she was just another example of how men see women as exotic, alien, and perfect, while men are allowed to be ordinary and human.

    The word “feminist” has ceased to have any meaning — no one really knows what it means anymore. If “feminism” means “woman=good, men=bad” (which seems to be the current meaning), then I’m no feminist either. I prefer to call myself a humanist — I’d just like women (and everybody else not white, Anglo and male) to be treated as human beings. Which neither The Fifth Element nor Armageddon did.

    The Fifth Element got made because Hollywood is run by men just as adolescent as Luc Besson. And the intended audience of a movie like this is adolescent males.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • ctrevino

    I really like/agree with most of your reviews but I do have to strongly disagree with at least two of them.

    Granted, The Fifth Element is not the greatest film ever made. It’s pretty lousy as a matter of fact when you think of the argument. But I still enjoyed the movie. It was great visually and it had a wonderful soundtrack. Just watching the images and listening to the music was worth my time and money.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • I can’t say the same for myself. I need more than pretty images and a cool soundtrack to enjoy a movie.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • ctrevino

    Granted, there was objectification of women on the character of Lelou, but in my opinion all characters, men and women, were little more than stereotypes. So what? This is not a character drama, it’s science fiction for God’s sake!

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • Why should science fiction be held to a lower standard than any other type of movie? The characters may have been stereotypes, as many film characters are, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that men are more often stereotyped positively than women are. As a woman, I’d much rather watch women doing things for themselves than having to be rescued by men all the time.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • ctrevino

    The technology seems incredible, lots of things happen for No Apparent Reason. So what? If you can’t take things for granted go see biographies instead.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • Suspense of disbelief doesn’t work that way. A movie should carry you away to the extent that you don’t realize all the plot holes that are there until way after the movie is over. If a movie is so unengrossing and boring that picking it apart while you’re watching it is more fun than the movie, there’s something wrong.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • ctrevino

    I agree the film is sexist, the argument implausible, the talent wasted. So what? I’d still go watch The Fifth Element again than Independence Day or Men in Black. By far.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • We are all entitled to our opinions. I stand by mine.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com sometime in 1998]

  • Alexander Gimelbrant

    I’ve greatly enjoyed reading you reviews, but never felt like writing to you until I stumbled upon your comments on The Fifth Element.

    Most of your reviews have a really interesting angle (I think your comments on American Beauty are among the most perceptive writing about this film) and, quite importanly, often show unmistakable signs of sense of humor.

    But I think that your reaction to TFE displayed something that keeps fascinating me as a foreigner in America – the sudden loss of sense of humor (and proportion) when gender relations are talked about, or thought to be talked about. (I’m making wild generalizations, inspired by generalizations of your genX riffs :-))<

    I don't think it's fair to discuss TFE in these terms – it’s generally a good idea to judge a work of art by the aims it set for itself. The plot of TFE is an obvious clothesline to show off set and costume designs. And these were fabulous, inventive and non-pushy (my personal favorite was the princess Leia’s hairdo, donned in TFE by the “military woman” – I thought it was hilarious and it wasn’t hammered into your head). I’m afraid that being offended by TFE‘s “gender politics” is a little bit like arguing that the original Star Wars is racist (with DW being the epitome of black maleness) – possible but incomprehensible.

    I realize that people can get passionate and irrational about issues. You don’t want to tell a Serb to lighten up about Kosovars, or vice versa.(Or worse still – brace yourself – here comes the real and actual quote from The Phantom Menace review by the Film Geek: “And if you never really liked Star Wars in the first place, then just shut the fuck up”.) I’m just wondering why not indeed lighten up – wouldn’t more be accomplished?

    Well, just wanted to share my observation with you.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 11.28.00]

  • I appreciate your comments on my review of The Fifth Element, but I resent be called, basically, a humorless, irrational feminist. Why is it that no one tells black people that they have no sense of humor if they object to jokes that denigrate black people? Feminists, of course, garnered their reputation for humorlessness when they objected to being treated as less than human even when it was disguised as humor. Haven’t you ever heard the expression: “Many a true thing is said in jest”?

    I don’t quite get the people who call Star Wars racist just because there are no black people in it (at least until Lando). But that’s not a fair comparison to what I did in my review of The Fifth Element. If Star Wars had white actors in blackface, or black actors performing as atrocious black stereotypes, then I could see accusations of racism justified. But that’s precisely what TFE does in relation to women: it treats them as nothing more sex objects, and the fashion design you love so much is appalling and ridiculous on them. (Men, of course, are never dressed by designers in such absurd fashion. Women’s bodies may be treated as works of art, but not men’s, because men are generally appreciated as individuals while women generally are not.) Bruce Willis gets to wear clothing that fully covers his body, clothing that looks contemporary depsite the film’s setting hundreds of years in the future, but Milla Jovovich is supposed to get by with a few strategically placed straps. Where’s the joke here that I’m missing?

    What would I accomplish by “lightening up” in regards to TFE? The movie pissed me off, and I vented. My accomplishment here is preventing myself from bursting a blood vessel in my brain, and that’s pretty important to me. I like my brain, and I use it all the time.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 11.28.00]

  • Chris Bisoski

    wtf? your review is slanted!

    You reviewed 5th element with a bit of a slant. Objective journalism ring a bell? You are sick! With those mad slant skills, you could make Timothy McVeigh sound like a nice guy who just had a bad day. It must feel good to say all that shit, but think of what you’re doing to the people who didn’t get fucked over so bad by men, as it seems you have. They’re going to miss a decent movie cause you slanted the review towards total shit pile.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.01]

  • Ah, so your opinion that The Fifth Element is “decent,” objective fact, and my opinion that The Fifth Element is not is a “slant”? I see now.

    Reviewing movies — reviewing anything — is not “objective journalism.” Movie reviews are one person’s opinion. That’s it.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.01]

  • Casey Fahy

    Subject: Objectification of Women… So?

    Dear FlickPhilosopher,

    I admire your site very much, so enough of that and straight to a quibble: Upon reading your review of The Fifth Element, a candy-colored bauble of a movie, I found myself becoming exasperated by the feminist gripe about the adolescent objectification (objectivisation? objectifying of? What’s Foucault say?) of women.

    Sigh. I am not an adolescent, though I am a white male (though I do not think that I or “my kind” are responsible for all evil that has ever happened to non-white-males, but whatever, I have of course learned to roll with that one).

    My question to you is: don’t women objectify men?

    And what is heaven’s name is wrong about that?

    It tells us something about the opposite sex.

    Ayn Rand put Gary Cooper at the top of a skyscraper in The Fountainhead. Jane Austen had P&P‘s hunk striding into a pond to cool his burning blood. Ridiculous?

    Sure, but a fascinating objectification of men which delights me as a man, because it tells me what object women want men to be, which, though I don’t keep notes and try on a new personality every day to suit women’s expectations, still interests me and engages me.

    Masculinity, with its cliches of stoic integrity, endurance, and fighting courage, has a veiled whiff of a bull’s musk, an animalistic impulsiveness that one could, I suppose, complain about as an adolescent degradation of men by women. Yes, men are your loyal guard dog, and they’ll spring into self-sacrificing action like a Doberman and rip the lungs out of that creep who pissed you off. My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble. But I don’t complain, because it says something true about men AND women, and true isn’t bad, it’s just true.

    I hate to break it to you, but the women in The Fifth Element, though it is not my psychosexual cup of tea, are the strongest characters in the film. Besson is obviously in awe, almost terrified of their power, and that power comes from their sex appeal, their idealized feminity that is charged with a yes- I’m- a- knockout- and- I’m- going- to- dress- this- way- because- I- know- it- will- put- men- in- my- thrawl- but- they’ll- still- enjoy- it- while- I’m- twisting- them- around- my- finger- because- that’s- the- tango- of- men- and- women- since- Helen- of- Troy’s- face- launched- a- thousand- ships.

    Besson fetishizes women, and shows exactly what blows him away about women. Besson obviously sees women as the true heart of beauty and love in the universe, and it is their beauty, and yes the vulnerability of simple, nurturing feminine sweetness of spirit and flesh, which is different than men, which men should respond to and protect from their own pointless violence.

    Do I think the movie is deep? No, but, believe it or not, this was a valentine to women that, at worst, reveals the director’s own sense of inadequacy in the presence of the fairer sex.

    Men have an honest reaction to women for being women, not for being men.

    The sound of a woman screaming or crying does fire off synaptic triggers in men.

    Their impulse is to defend, to be filled with sorrow that loveliness should be a victim of masculine cruelty.

    Sorry. You may want men to desire women for their prowess on the battlefield or their scientific genius, but men have sense memories of their wife/ girlfriend/ sister/ mom/ grandmother’s beautiful smile shattered by pain and weeping on their shoulder, and the message is clear: protect, kill for, shelter from all that is bad and build a damn skyscraper or something to make sure this never happens to her again.

    Besson did capture in his little film a glimpse into what triggers men to feel their equivalent of the feelings women have when they watch Kevin Costner chick-flicks.

    It’s an honest, boyish to be sure, glimpse into the soul of a man, but even the most sophisticated, erudite, and educated of us men still can be touched by a movie like this on that level, and, no, it’s not “look at those jugs, heh, heh,” it’s much more than that, dammit! I don’t think you are JUST reacting to Russell Crowe’s legs, though seeing them in a gladiator’s skirt you admit is titillating, because I know you are connecting the body to a whole concept of the man, and it is appropriate that his body evoke that feminine objectification because, afterall, we aren’t disembodied mind-puffs of energy but men and women, flesh and blood. The flesh informs the blood, the mind, and vice versa.

    Anyway, I’ve said too much, but will leave you with an irritating little question: If a guy sends you an embarrassingly corny Valentine’s Day card, do you rip it up and call him a misogynist, or politely tell him you don’t want to date him?

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.01]

  • I found myself becoming exasperated by the feminist gripe about the adolescent objectification (objectivisation? objectifying of? What’s Foucault say?) of women.

    So, the minute a woman complains about something related to women, it’s time to insult her by calling her a “feminist,” eh? Okay.

    whatever, I have of course learned to roll with that one.

    Why? Why not fight it if it bothers you? Or are you saying I should just “roll with” the depersonalization of women that happens way too often in what passes for entertainment in our society?

    My question to you is: don’t women objectify men?

    Are you talking about women in real life? Or women in the movies? You’re mixing two different arguments here. I was talking about the objectification of women in the movies… in a particular movie. Do all some women see in a particular man is nothing more than his car and the size of his paycheck? Yes. Is that objectification? Yes. But the wholesale depersonalization of one gender on film is almost exclusively what male filmmakers do to the women they depict onscreen.

    And what is heaven’s name is wrong about that?

    Have you ever had a girl look at you like you were a mouse because you didn’t drive the kind of car she felt her man should? Imagine seeing men depicting onscreen like that over and over and over again. Then maybe you can begin to see what’s wrong with that.

    It tells us something about the opposite sex.

    No, it tells us what one person thinks of the opposite sex.

    Ayn Rand put Gary Cooper at the top of a skyscraper in The Fountainhead. Jane Austen had P&P‘s hunk striding into a pond to cool his burning blood. Ridiculous?

    Maybe, but that’s not objectification. Depicting a male character as masculine is no more objectification than depicting a female character as feminine is. Rand and Austen’s characters were fully rounded, male human beings. Luc Besson’s female characters were nothing more than their bodies. They were not fully human. That is objectification.

    Sure, but a fascinating objectification of men which delights me as a man, because it tells me what object women want men to be,

    Can you possibly imagine that all women want the same kind of man? Do all men want the same kind of woman? Of course not.

    Yes, men are your loyal guard dog, and they’ll spring into self-sacrificing action like a Doberman and rip the lungs out of that creep who pissed you off.

    Right. So that explains why some men beat the women they profess to love. Or abandon them. Some men are wimps. And not all women want a pit bull, anyway — Jesus, the first time my boyfriend ripped the lungs out of some creep who pissed me off, I’d dump him. How long would it be till I pissed him off enough to warrant the same treatment?

    You’ve been reading too many regency romance novels. Get out in the real world. People come in wider varieties than you imagine.

    Besson is obviously in awe, almost terrified of their power, and that power comes from their sex appeal, their idealized feminity

    Some women are a little more grown up than that. Some men call women like that “bitches” or “teases.” And they’re right.

    Besson obviously sees women as the true heart of beauty and love in the universe, and it is their beauty, and yes the vulnerability of simple, nurturing feminine sweetness of spirit and flesh

    Huh? Where are you pulling this tripe from? “Simple, nurturing feminine sweetness of spirit and flesh”? Gag! Do you really imagine all women fit this definition? Oh, wait… I guess the ones who don’t are “feminists,” right? Hairy legs and all, right? Probably lesbians, too.

    which is different than men, which men should respond to and protect from their own pointless violence.

    And so if a woman isn’t sweetness and light, men won’t respond to her? Is that Beeson’s point? Or yours?

    Do I think the movie is deep? No, but, believe it or not, this was a valentine to women

    I don’t believe it. Oh, maybe Beeson thinks it’s a valentine, but then again he is a twisted fuck. In my opinion.

    that, at worst, reveals the director’s own sense of inadequacy in the presence of the fairer sex.

    That’s one thing we agree on.

    Men have an honest reaction to women for being women, not for being men.

    Except gay men, of course.

    The sound of a woman screaming or crying does fire off synaptic triggers in men.

    Jesus. Do you get off thinking about women screaming? Shit.

    Their impulse is to defend, to be filled with sorrow that loveliness should be a victim of masculine cruelty.

    Unless he’s the one inflicting the cruelty, of course.

    Sorry. You may want men to desire women for their prowess on the battlefield or their scientific genius,

    Where the hell did you get that from? I’ve never said any such thing.

    but men have sense memories of their wife/ girlfriend/ sister/ mom/ grandmother’s beautiful smile shattered by pain and weeping on their shoulder,

    How the hell did you grow up? Get some help, man.

    and the message is clear: protect, kill for, shelter from all that is bad and build a damn skyscraper or something to make sure this never happens to her again.

    Build a skyscraper?

    Besson did capture in his little film a glimpse into what triggers men to feel their equivalent of the feelings women have when they watch Kevin Costner chick-flicks.

    Not all women. Though probably only us feminists would be so unvulnerable and hard-hearted not to weep like babies on our man’s shoulder over a Costner flick. So never mind.

    I don’t think you are JUST reacting to Russell Crowe’s legs, though seeing them in a gladiator’s skirt you admit is titillating

    You’re like the tenth guy to comment on Russell Crowe’s thighs in Gladiator. What does that mean?

    because I know you are connecting the body to a whole concept of the man,

    And a whole character as presented in the film! Maximus is a person. He’s human. He is not simply his thighs. But Besson’s female characters are simply their bodies.

    The flesh informs the blood, the mind, and vice versa.

    True enough. But in much more complicated ways that you have lain out here.

    If a guy sends you an embarrassingly corny Valentine’s Day card, do you rip it up and call him a misogynist, or politely tell him you don’t want to date him?

    What on earth does such a question have to do with The Fifth Element or my reaction to it? It’s either/or with you, isn’t it? Either a woman fits into your narrow, confining mold of what a woman is supposed to be, or she’s out to kill all men?

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.2001]

  • Casey Fahy

    Well, I sure walked right into that one.

    I obviously enjoy what you have to say more than you enjoy what I have to say, that’s certain.

    You allow that psychosexual response to physical attributes happens “in much more complicated ways than I have lain out here.” Maybe that’s what I should have to said to you.

    My metaphors about men’s response to female vulnerability and beauty and women’s response to male strength (which is reflected in movies) were not meant to illustrate myself but a social phenomenon, and of course I don’t believe everybody fits into them or heaven forbid should fit into them. I mentioned them merely to footnote a social fact before offering an explanation of it that differs from the sometimes simplistic political explanation offered by feminist ideology. (And no, I did not mean to demean you by referring to this ideology, which I gather you agree with at least in part, as do I, and I do not consider it an insult.)

    Your apt illustration of women who value men only for their property got me thinking, although Hollywood has been known to glamorize such traits in men from time to time. As a starving writer, women who desire this exclusively, on screen or off, don’t appeal to me because their appreciation of men, and themselves, is incomplete. I don’t consider them evil or oppressive, however, even if they’re just responding to the way a guy looks, which sometimes has less to do with his character than wealth does. There’s still something interesting in it, though, and there’s some truth there, even if not for each and every individual on Earth, if you’re of a philosophical disposition. It’s not just something which should be excoriated.

    I certainly think movies like Topless Car Wash are demeaning to women, but ultimately more demeaning to the men who make them. But I don’t think it’s fair to paint Besson with the same broad brush any more than it’s fair to paint me with it. Let’s see, I’m a Regency romance-reading closet homo who wants to beat my girlfriend to a pulp to hear her scream and cry and believes all feminists are dykes? See, that’s what I was talking about.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.2001]

  • You know the person you are. I have only your comments on The Fifth Element to go by. And yeah, that’s how you came across. Try rereading what you sent me.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.2001]

  • Casey Fahy

    I think you should try re-reading what I wrote, as well. Maybe I will learn how my words fed a gruesome stereotype, and you’ll see there might be something else going on in what I said.

    I admit, my awareness of your writing is much larger, so I temper my opinion of your thinking in that context. I’m sorry I was unable to communicate any more than you were able to interpret in what I said, and will leave it at that.

    Adieu and best of luck with your site. Somebody should start paying you lots of money to do what you do. You work too hard if you exert all this energy on a neanderthalic misogynist like me. ;)

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.2001]

  • Clearly, anyone who appreciates my writing cannot be a neanderthalic misogynist. :->

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 07.2001]

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