Real Men Love the Fifth Element

May 04, 2012 - 6:00 am | Permalink

In yet another installment of our “Real Men Love” movie series, we examine The Fifth Element, the sci-fi action-adventure that celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. What makes this film so memorable? So entertaining? So balls-out awesome? Read on to find out.

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“AZIZ, LIGHT!”

 ALT TEXT FO LIFE

Out of all the great lines in this film, the one most frequently used within my circle of friends is undoubtedly, “AZIZ, LIGHT!

In addition to setting up a great joke near the end of the scene, the repetition of the archaeologist berating his child servant does a pretty good job of quickly and efficiently developing the characters of the French archaeologist, and his American student (played, for no discernible reason, by Luke Perry) who keeps a running tally of how many times the professor yells the phrase.

This line has been used many times by my friends and I, often when someone has forgotten to turn on their headlights whilst driving at night, or when someone is entering a darkened room but has not yet flipped the lightswitch. If there are two lines that should stick with the viewer after watching The Fifth Element, they should be “AZIZ, LIGHT” and “I am a meat popsicle.” That said, you’ll (hopefully) have much more use for the former line than the latter.

 

The Futuristic Setting

What the hell is it counting down to? It's a cigarette machine, not a clock. Right? 

Though the vast majority of the characters in The Fifth Element have American accents, the film was actually a French-British joint production, and roughly 90% of the actors belong to one of those countries. As a result of the fact that the director, costume designer, and production manager were all French, the film took on a very wacky, very...well, French tone and visual style.

Everyone is wearing odd clothes (designed by fashion guru Jean-Paul Gaultier), the aliens look oddly bombastic, and the entire universe seems to follow the creed of form over function. This is not a bad thing. If you want a realistic sci-fi world, you watch Blade Runner: if you want a trippy sci-fi fantasy universe, you watch The Fifth Element.

However, even for all its over-the-top qualities, the world still has some nice technological touches, like the “four a day” cigarette dispenser, designed to wean users off smoking (made additionally funny due to the fact that the cigarettes seem to be inverted – the filter takes up 90 percent of each stick), the auto-wash in Korben’s shower, and dozens of other futuristic inventions too complicated to name or explain.

 

Korben Dallas

Look for Bruce Willis in my upcoming article, "actors who have spent their entire career playing one character." 

In essence, there really isn’t anything special about Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element. He’s a badass, yeah, but he’s a badass in the exact same way that every other Bruce Willis character is badass – wry catchphrases, cocky attitudes, manly grunts. Etcetera.

Yet it’s this stereotypical personality that makes Korben Dallas, a futuristic ex-marine-cum-cab-driver, such an interesting character to watch: considering the world around him feels so odd and alien and French, the presence of a clichéd action hero provides a great entry point for the audience, making the rest of the film seem more accessible. All things considered, Korben Dallas is pretty much just John McClaine is space – at any moment, it seems like Korben is but an inch away from smiling to himself, shaking his head, and whimsically exclaiming, “California…”*

Also, “Korben Dallas” may be the single weirdest fucking name ever conceived. Even weirder than “Castor Troy,” and that’s saying something.

 

Gimme da cashhhhhhhh

"How long you been waiting there?" "Long enough NOW GIMME DA CASHHHHHH" 

The scene where Korben is almost mugged by a hyperactive crook wearing a hat with a photo of Korben’s hallway on it (in order to fool Korben’s peephole camera) is genius. Period.

Firstly, the mugger is holding the most absurd looking gun ever conceived: there are two different clips, spikes coming out of the barrel, a sight almost as big as the gun itself, and a little yellow button on the side that serves no purpose other than to render the gun useless.

Secondly, after the mugger has the gun confiscated from him, he – again, for no reason – starts dancing nervously.

Thirdly, this weird, crazy, ridiculously-dressed mugger is actually played by Mathieu Kassovitz, an established French writer and director (if you’ve seen Amelie, he played the object of Audrey Tautou’s affection). When the guy who played quiet, introspective Nino Quincampoix starts shrieking “GIMME DA CASHHHHHHHHH,” it’s an odd, yet kickass moment.

 

Tiny Lister as the President of the Galaxy

"MISSUS DALLAS! DIS IS THE PRESIDENT!" 

This may be one of the only unintentionally funny things in the entire film, but Tommy “Tiny” Lister’s casting as the President of the Federated Territories or Whatever makes for some frequent, albeit unforeseen, comedy. When wringing his hands over General Staedert’s decision to fire at the evil fireball, he looks less like a nervous president and more like he’s trying to decide whether to eat two babies for dinner, or just the usual one.

When he tells Staedert “Get out of there – I don’t want an incident,” he puts awkward pauses between the first half of the sentence and removes roughly 2/3 of the consonants from the second half, resulting in a sentence that sounds like, “Get-out-of-there! I don’ wan’ a issiden!”

 

Ruby Rhod

POP IT, D-MAN 

Chris Tucker should have ended his acting career after The Fifth Element. And not because his other movies suck (though they do), and not because he would prove himself to be an insufferable douchebag (which he has), but rather due to the fact that Ruby Rhod, an intergalactic superstar radio host, was literally the role of Chris Tucker’s career.

While Tucker’s loud voice, bugged-out eyes, and ostentatious personality are usually a liability in most of his other film roles, they are a perfect match for the spastic, over-the-top character of Ruby Rhod. From the first time we meet Ruby as he slides across a floor, dancing, shouting, and giving a huge group of Japanese girls his “autograph” (“autograph,” in this context, meaning that he dips a paintbrush into a can and runs it over all of the girls’ photos of him while walking past them), to his awkward handling of an action scene (“Korben? Korben? Korben, my man? One of em comin—aw, shit¸three comin, Korben”), to his whining bitchiness near the end of the film when a medic pulls a splinter from his hand (“OW,” he yells, slapping the medic on the head. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU! HURT!”), Ruby Rhod is an incredible character, and represents the absolute only time Chris Tucker’s insanity is used to a positive effect.

 

Special Effects

 Either GTA: Sin City or GTA: Fifth Element. Give us at least ONE, Rockstar.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, at the time, The Fifth Element may have boasted the best special effects ever seen. Mixing practical set design, green screen, and CG animation (but only when necessary), the New York City of the 21st century was truly a sight to behold.

The CG was so good, in fact, and the world seemed so fully realized, that I frequently hear the laments of countless gamers who wish that the Grand Theft Auto series might eventually make a game set in a similar universe to that of The Fifth Element, replete with flying cars and a polluted underworld. I tend to agree with them.

We’ll probably never see another film like The Fifth Element again, effects-wise: so many of the awesome setpieces are largely practical (when Bruce Willis’s stuntman narrowly escapes a large explosion in the ballroom fight, that’s a real explosion), thus making them much more realistic and relatable.

 

Mr. Kim

"Good philosophyyyy. See good in bad, I like!" 

I hate to be a racist and say that the majority of Mr. Kim’s hilarity comes from his absurd pronunciation of regular English, but I’m going to say it anyway. Plus, I’m part Asian, so it’s cool.

Anyway, Mr. Kim serves as the yin to Korben’s yang for one very short scene. As Kim serves Korben lunch (on his flying Chinese boatcar, no less), Korben receives a message, which he immediately assumes is bad news. Kim, ever the optimist, tells Korben, “Grandfather say, it never rain every day. Is good news, guaranteed. I bet you lunch.”

Kim grabs the letter, opens it, and unknowingly exclaims: “You are FIYAHD!”

 

Robot Bartender

You-want-some-more? 

Shortly before Korben and Leeloo board the shuttle to Fhloston Paradise, we see Father Vito Cornelius drowning his sorrows in alcohol. He complains endlessly to the bartender about how Leeloo is supposed to be strong, but she’s also fragile, and some other shit, and ends it all with, “…do you know what I mean?”

Then the camera show us the reverse shot, and reveals that Vito has been talking to a robotic bartender the entire time. The robot shakes his head quickly, and responds in the only way he knows how: by offering another spritz of alcohol and blankly asking, “You-want-some-more?”

This is funny enough on its own, but during the next dialogue scene at the bar where Vito and David argue about who will pursue Korben, the waiter can again be heard asking, “You-want-some-more?”, in the exact same tone of voice.

It’s funnier when you actually see it, trust me.

 

Gary Oldman

 "A case with FOUR STONES IN IT! Not one or two or three, but FOUR! What the hell am I supposed to do with an emp-ty case?"

There are two things that one can a director can add to absolutely any movie to make it at least three times better: zombies, and Gary Oldman. Given that The Fifth Element is sci-fi enough without the addition of the walking dead, Luc Besson opted for the latter. While not quite as hilariously evil as Agent Stansfield in Leon/The Professional, Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg is the rare villain who balances a hilarious lack of menace (as the writers seem to know that the evil asteroid, and not Zorg, is supposed to be what frightens the audience, Zorg is responsible for almost as many laughs as Ruby Rhod)  with an unusual amount of cool.

Zorg gets screwed over at nearly every turn in the film: he fails to get the stones in the first scene, he almost chokes to death on a cherry, again fails to get the stones in the middle of the film, fails to get the stones at the end of the film, almost saves himself at the very end, but then dies. And yet, thanks to Oldman’s performance, he’s a pleasure to watch: the screenshot above is taken from the moment near the end of the film where Zorg finds out that the case he just worked so hard to get doesn’t have any of the four stones in it. Oldman, in his inimitable fashion, plays the scene brilliantly: he checks the box, smiles and laughs (seemingly because the stones are there), checks again, laughs harder, but the laughs quickly turn to tears as he laments, “They’re not here.”

Since Zorg and Korben never really meet one another (more on that later), and since Zorg almost consistently gets his ass handed to him, he becomes oddly fun: he’s not sympathetic, by any means, but he’s very entertaining to watch thanks to Gary Oldman’s absurd accent (“Laihf, which yew so nobly surve, comes from deshtruction, dishorder, and chaosh”) and mannerisms.

 

“Negative, I am a meat popsicle”

My friend Justin was kicked from a Day of Defeat server for refusing to change his name from "Meat Popsicle" to something that wasn't synonomous with a sex organ. Those hypocritical fucks are totally okay with re-enacting the most violent war in history, but not with acknowledging wangs. God FORBID. 

I know that “meat popsicle” has since become a euphemism for a penis, but – to the best of my knowledge – its first official usage was in this film, and it was not meant to serve as a phallic metaphor.

The cops show up in Korben’s apartment building, searching every room for him and Leeloo. They ask Korben to put his hands on the scan circles in his room (every single room comes with scan circles – echoes of a police state?).

”Sir, are you classified as human?”

Without batting an eye, Korben replies,

”Negative. I am a meat popsicle.”

Firstly, this line ceases to be funny if “meat popsicle” serves only as a substitute for “cock.” If Korben is literally describing himself as a frozen slab of protein on a wooden stick made for human consumption, he seems that much crazier to the cop who is interrogating him. If he had said, “I’m a penis,” the cop would have taken it as an insult (in roughly the same way they take insult to Korben’s next door neighbor, who flips them off and yells “SMOKE YOUUUUUUU” instead of putting his hands in the circles).

Secondly, this may be the single funniest moment of the entire film. It’s hard to explain why the timing of “meat popsicle” is so funny, but it probably has something to do with typically-badass Bruce Willis making an absurd joke at the expense of the fuzz. If I wracked my brain for a week, I would still never be able to come up with as absurd a line as “I am a meat popsicle.” And this is coming from a guy who makes videos about eating babies.

 

Bruce Willis getting his shit wrecked by Ian Holm

 

This shot is hilarious for several reasons:

1. Bruce Willis never gets knocked out, by anyone, ever. To see him get cold-cocked by fucking Bilbo, of all people, is hysterical.

2. The look on Korben’s face as he goes down is an insane mixture of confusion, pain, flabbergastedness, and Bruce Willis checking to make sure he doesn’t miss falling on the cushioned mat placed directly below frame.

3. While not audible in animated gif format (obviously), Korben makes an incredible “EEUUUGHAOUUUGH” noise as he falls.

Watch the animation till it becomes hilarious, then keep watching until it becomes not funny anymore, then finish the rest of the article and come back and watch it until it becomes funny again.

 

The ZF-1

It's the swiss army knife of assault weaponry. 

It's light. Handle's adjustable for easy carrying, good for righties and lefties. Breaks down into four parts, undetectable by x-ray, ideal for quick, discreet interventions. A word on firepower. Titanium recharger, three thousand round clip with bursts of three to three hundred, and with the Replay button - another Zorg invention - it's even easier. One shot, and Replay sends every following shot to the same location. And to finish the job, all the Zorg oldies-but-goldies: rocket launcher, arrow launcher with explosive or poisonous gas heads (very practical), Zorg’s famous net launcher, the always efficient flamethrower (Zorg’s favorite), and for the grand finale, the all-new ice cube system.

Even during my first time watching this film, I only had one complaint: that the ZF-1 wasn’t used more frequently. Zorg spends a good five minutes explaining how cool the gun is in an early scene, and he later uses it himself – but he never utilizes any of the awesome features he showed the audience in the beginning. Not even the Replay button. I thought this complaint might reduce over time – sadly, this is still not the case. Even when I re-watched it for the purposes of this article, during the moment when Zorg corners Leeloo in the ventilation system and starts wildly blasting away at the ceiling, I kept wanting him to use the ZF-1’s rocket launcher. Or flamethrower. Or ice cube system. You know, anything other than the default machine gun etting.

With that said, the ZF-1’s single scene of badassity is still enough to make it one of the coolest and most memorable things in the film.

 

“HELM, 108!”

Did I make the font big enough? I probably did. 

About three fourths of the way through the movie, after pretty much every main character has made it onto the good ship Fhloston Paradise, the audience is treated to a very brief scene inside the ship’s control room, as a way of setting the location up so it will be easily recognizable once the Mangalores burst in and take over.

This scene also includes one of the most nonsensical moments in the entire film – and we’re talking about a movie where Chris Tucker wears a hairdo resembling a giant penis.

The captain, an older, official-looking gentleman, tells his first mate “Helm to 108,” ostensibly an order to change course. The first mate nods, says “yes, sir,” and, for seemingly no reason at all, turns to the ship’s pilot and literally fucking screams,

“HELM, 108!” The pilot seems to take all of this in stride, confidently repeats the order, and turns the ship’s wheel.

Even when I was younger, this scene seemed funny to me – firstly, we never see this first mate do anything else throughout the entire course of the movie. Are we therefore meant to believe that his only job on the ship is to relay orders from the captain to the pilot despite the fact that the two men are literally about three feet away? And secondly, does he really have to yell the orders so loud? All things considered, the pilot probably heard the captain give the order in the first place — I imagine that having redundant sentences screamed at him over and over by a self-important officer might have a slightly negative effect on his skills as a pilot.

Still, it’s pretty entertaining to watch the completely unassuming pilot get screamed at, and then cheerfully repeat the order as if this is something that, for better or worse, happens every day. The pilot has accepted his lot in life: it’s a loud, incredibly repetitive life, but it is a life, nonetheless.

 

Clever multi-location dialogue

"We're saved!" "I'm screwed." 

Given that Luc Besson derived much of the story and visual style of The Fifth Element  from a French comic book, it makes sense that he would also crib some of  comics’ main storytelling mechanics. In fact, Besson frequently uses one particular mechanic to great effect: multi-locational dialogue.

In comics, this device is a quick and easy way of drawing parallels between scenes, or by way of transitioning from one scene to another (read Watchmen for several examples of this – or better yet, just read Watchmen because it’s really goddamn good). In The Fifth Element, it works in much the same way, but considering it is used with live actors in a real movie, the mechanic becomes much more entertaining.

Take a scene near the beginning of the film, where Zorg opens the case he hired the Mangalores to acquire for him, expecting to find four stones inside. In Zorg’s factory, he opens the case, and, irritated, exclaims, “This case is empty.”

Quickly, we cut to a shot of Leeloo, laughing her ass off in Father Vito’s apartment: while, within the context of her conversation with Vito, she is laughing at his question of where the four stones are, the editing makes it seem like Leeloo is laughing directly at Zorg – which, in a way, she is. Vito asks,  “What do you mean, empty?”

Again, we quickly cut back to Zorg as he continues a seemingly separate conversation in an entirely different location, as he effectively replies to Vito (whilst actually talking to his number two): “Empty. The opposite of full. This case is supposed to be full! Anyone care to explain?”

Then we cut back to Leeloo as she does, in fact, explain why the case is empty. The scene goes on like this, and, apart from being a clever method of delivering a great amount of exposition to the audience and separate characters, the inherent comic timing of the mechanic make the sudden cuts and jumps in location consistently entertaining and funny. A significant portion of the film’s dialogue scenes are plotted out this way (some scenes more subtly than others), and it gives a serious kick to what might have otherwise been boring, expository conversations.

 

The hero and villain never once meet each other

I love little touches like this. 

Yep. Not once. Korben Dallas works for Zorg’s ubiquitous corporation and ends up getting fired, but that is literally the only contact, direct or indirect, the protagonist and antagonist have: they are never in the exact same location, they never talk to one another, and they aren’t even in the same frame, though near the end of the film, they get criminally close.

As Korben runs to the Fhloston Paradise hangar with Leeloo, Vito, and Ruby in tow, he steps into an elevator. Mere moments after he and his gang disappear inside the lift, Zorg rushes out of a different elevator right next to Korben’s: the two are technically both seen, one after another, in this unbroken shot, but they aren’t visible at the same time.

This neat aspect of the story is one of those things that I wouldn’t have noticed had it not been pointed out to me, but it makes a big difference: since Zorg and Korben never meet one another, the audience is spared some of the clichés that come with the territory of a big budget action movie: the monologuing, the standoff, the duel, etcetera. Each character becomes that much more interesting when they function separately from their main enemy – indeed, in Korben’s case, he is literally not even aware of Zorg’s existence.

Cut it any way you like, but that shit is cool.

*That’s from the first Die Hard movie. If you don’t recognize that quote, you should be ashamed.


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