Sunday, October 6, 2013

Star Wars as Pop Sci-Fi and Space Opera: The Fifth Element

MIKE SAYS The Fifth Element is possibly one of the weirdest film we've ever reviewed.  A product of the late 90's, the film instantly confused most of the people who saw it, became a moderate financial success, and then went on to become a cult favorite.  If anything, the film is a great example of the Pop Sci-Fi trend of the time, in which filmmakers were struggling to find a way to make sci-fi new and exciting again, which was achieved by finding foreign directors, which definitely put a fresh spin on things... at least for Americans.

Everything about The Fifth Element starts falling into context when it's viewed as a foreign film, particularly as a French film.  The color pallet, the mix of comedy and action, and the completely incomprehensible plot all scream European sci-fi.  In fact, introduce a slightly muted color pallet, and I've just described an episode of Doctor Who.

The muddled plot of the film still haunts me to this day....between the weird talking comet threatening to destroy the planet, an alien weapon whose purpose and function are never truly explained, and the very fuzzy origins of Leelo (who may or may not have been the alien driving the spaceship instead of the stone slab), dwelling on the plot of The Fifth Element is an excellent way to get a headache.

Despite this, the film oozes fun, using humor, often in extreme ways, and action to deliver a film that while confusing, certainly entertains.

As far as any similarities to Star Wars, the only connection I can see is that both fall into the category of Pop Sci-fi, a genre which Star Wars practically gave birth to. While Star Wars is often debated as a deep and meaningful exploration of mythology and archetypes, in the end what made it popular was its generous use of special effects, its universal appeal and accessibility, and its focus on action instead of plot (much of which I still credit the editor for, rather than Lucas).

To say The Fifth Element was hoping to be the next Star Wars may not be entirely accurate, but it may not be far off either.  With mystical origins, a large universe to explore, a literal Death Star, and an empowered hero, the film does have a lot of the same great elements of Star Wars, though to think these were entirely on purpose is probably a stretch..

While this movie has missed the boat on being the next great hero of Pop Sci-Fi (largely due, I think, to the nonsensical plot),  it still remains a very entertaining, though very odd, example of the sub-genre.

KATE SAYS the best way to describe The Fifth Element is lush--which (perhaps unfairly) pushes it towards the fantasy rather than sci-fi genre.

Opera IN Space
Not that sci-fi can't be lush. The Fifth Element is visually similar to Blade Runner meets Doctor Who (with a Stargate opening), all three of which are technically sci-fi. Yet the lack of technobabble and core of mysticism place it closer to the fantasy line.

Since space is involved, Space Opera is the useful term here.

"Space Opera" is possibly the only resemblance The Fifth Element bears to Star Wars. However, I think the resemblance is an important one. Sci-fi, almost from its beginnings, fell into both fantasy/adventure (Edgar Rice Burroughs) and technology revolution (Asimov) genres. Star Wars melded the two with fantasy/adventure taking precedence. Through Joseph Campbell's analysis, this approach to sci-fi (big spaceships plus priests) was legitimatized and well-crystallized for later use.

Other than the Jedi-like (and adorable) priests (aah, Ian Holm!), the other resemblance to Star Wars seems to be the intense use of British extras. I mean--okay, there's Gary Oldman again doing his Gary Oldman thing. I've mentioned Ian Holm. John Neville makes a sneaky appearance, looking rather unlike himself. And then the non-English Luke Perry just drops in.

All this off-the-cuff WAIT! WHO WAS THAT? makes for an utterly fun and amusing film. It's a little longer than it needs to be, but it almost doesn't matter. Watching The Fifth Element is rather like watching Moulin Rouge. You look up and hey, they're doing another number! (Actually, parts of it are a LOT like Moulin Rouge. It did not surprise me to learn that Les Besson, a French director, has made several music videos.)

And of course, Bruce Willis is excellent as always--he's more the character from RED than from Die Hard.  Hero-smhero: the guy can do sci-fi action in his sleep.

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