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May 26, 2016

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Dissenting Opinions: The Fifth Element

@vitogulla throws some serious shade at our Fifth Element podcast.

Recently, the podcast discussed Luc Besson’s 1997 space opera, The Fifth Element, and the conversation was largely dismissive of the film’s overall message, even, at times, suggesting that, while it may be a lot of fun and unique, the film doesn’t have very much to say—if anything at all. Moreover, whatever critical insights were raised along with any attempts at analysis were shut down before any line of inquiry could be established and discussed. This is not, I think, a mischaracterization of that conversation. But in truth, there’s a little more going on in the film than most of the discussants were willing to give it credit for. The film’s central question is one which has been raised before—and probably better examined elsewhere—but it is nonetheless explored. In his book-length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claims, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide,” a question of whether life is or is not worth living, and in many ways, The Fifth Element is about just that, with director Luc Besson suggesting something similar, stating, “The theme is more [important]. I want to arrive at the point where Leeloo [Milla Jovovich] will say, ‘What's the use of saving lives when you see what you're doing with it?’ That's the demonstration of the film.” Of course, we shouldn’t take the director at his word: We can breakdown the rhetoric of the text to discover what it is that is being expressed. So with that said, I believe an investigation of the film is necessary, an examination of its themes and structure: Therefore, I intend to demonstrate that The Fifth Element asks ontological questions about the nature of existence through themes of love, war, and consumerism while eschewing elements of traditional plot structure.

To start, we have to begin with the underlying premise which allows for such a reading. The film’s central plot motivator is a device which makes the film’s examination of existence most obvious. The black ball of fire hurtling toward Earth and bringing along the whole world’s extinction serves as an allegory for our eventual moment of not being. It is a concrete expression of Heidegger’s concepts of dasein (being) and its opposite, das nicht (the nothing). Through this plot device, the film asks, as Heidegger asks in What is Metaphysics?, “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing? That is the question.” To put this idea more succinctly, life begins and then ends—but what we do in between? If we are thrown into a world which has pre-established rules and conventions, a world governed by das gerede (the chatter), how do we rise above that inauthentic self (or the they-self) to an authentic self? For Heidegger, it meant to live for one’s own self. And that is exactly the type of philosophy expressed by The Fifth Element

One of the most prominent themes of the film is love, and though any other action-adventure film might have love as a theme, rarely is love made the A-story as is the case here. It would seem that a movie about characters trying to prevent the apocalypse would privilege such a storyline, but The Fifth Element subverts this expectation, making that the B-plot of the story. Ordinarily, the love story is a subplot which comments on the main plot, but to reiterate, here, the roles are reversed. And even though the film’s prologue may set up the end of the world scenario, by the seventeen minute mark, when we finally meet Korben Dallas, our protagonist, he is a man who prefers a cat “to real thing,” a man who “[doesn’t] want a million women. [But j]ust wants one. A perfect one,” a man who “drive[s] a cab now, not a space fighter.” In his little New York apartment, full of technological wonders and inundated by advertising (which promises “a perfect world” in a consumerist paradise), he lives an inauthentic life, denying who he really is and unable to get what he wants. For further evidence, it is not when Korben accepts the mission that the film transitions into act two but the arrival and his rescue of Leeloo. Interestingly, when confronted with this choice, Besson shoots Bruce Willis in close up. The back of his head is out of focus in right-hand third of the screen while two simultaneous images of his face in the cab’s mirror fill the left third and the center of the screen, reflecting the character’s myriad of choices. He could follow the “rational” and “logical” option imposed by society, to be a good, law-abiding citizen and hand Leeloo over to the authorities, but he could also refuse. The fragmented composition of the image shows us that he is conflicted, unsure of himself as he has finally made a connection with someone, even if he is unable to communicate with Leeloo, which is a stark contrast to his conversation in his previous scene, where although he and his friend speak the same language, they are unable to see eye-to-eye. By making this choice, Korben begins his journey toward his authentic self. However, this connection he has with Leeloo comes radically undone when he attempts to kiss her while she is asleep. She rejects his advance because, as Vito Cornelius translates, Korben can do so “never without [her] permission.”

Korben and Leeloo's connection/communication problem is eventually juxtaposed with Ruby Rhod and the sweet-nothings he whispers to just about every woman he meets, but in particular, the scene in which Ruby performs cunnilingus on the flight attendant. Though Leeloo tells Korben that she will protect him as he tells her the same, Ruby tells the flight attendant, quite disingenuously, that he’s “never felt this way before” as he performs oral sex. And it becomes clear only few scenes later that Ruby will return to his roving ways as he remarks about the emperor’s daughter's love of singing, playing back her recorded sex moans, suggesting that though Ruby only treats people as means rather than ends in themselves—a very inauthentic way of “being-in-the-world.”

This theme of love is further demonstrated around the film’s midpoint, when the Diva is shot, the Mangalores take over the cruise ship, and Leeloo is badly injured by Zorg, Korben is instructed to go to Leeloo as she needs him and his love, a major revelation for the protagonist, who had been separated from her since arriving at Fhloston Paradise. The ensuing fight is not for the stones, which Korben has already secured, but to get to Leeloo. As he even explains to Vito, “Yes, you're trying to save the world, I remember. Right now, I'm trying to save Leeloo, father.” This distinction is important to note as it makes the focus of the film’s plot abundantly clear: The protagonist’s goal is love, not heroics.       

The final point I’d like to raise in support of this idea comes in the film’s last ten minutes, which serves as a very brisk act three. The major conflict of the scene, the inevitable final showdown in the pyramid, is based around Korben’s inability to communicate with Leeloo. When he asks her how to open the stones, she replies with something more like a riddle than an answer. This causes consternation amongst the group, and Ruby even suggests that maybe it’s a game, like “charades or something.” Of course, through dumb luck, Korben and company are able to open the stones, but when it comes to unlocking the power of the fifth element, he is required to say as he truly feels, to express his love for Leeloo. It is then that his connection/communication finally match as he follows his declaration with a kiss, preventing the apocalypse. It is in this scene that the film completes its dramatic arc, allowing the character to achieve his goal. And while I would agree that Korben’s love for Leeloo and vice-versa is based on rather flimsy motivations, I think that’s the point. The film believes that love is itself irrational, an unexplainable phenomenon, a strange culmination of attraction and intimacy.

And while love may be the most obvious theme in The Fifth Element, it is often juxtaposed with warfare, destruction, and militarism—quite literally when the flight attendant, who is clearly in love with Ruby, orgasms during the shuttle’s take off and Zorg’s henchman is dispatched with an explosion. But as the film demonstrates, these two things are incompatible, complete opposites, which is made most obvious during the film’s climax. Korben even admits that the military ruined his first marriage. Almost every act of unprovoked violence is thwarted—or at the very least, disapproved of. When the priest tries to poison the archaeologist in the prologue, his attempt is foiled because water is unfit for a toast. Or when Zorg monologues about destruction’s ability to create, he chokes on a cherry. Or when the military tries to destroy the great evil in space, the black ball increases in size, for, as Vito explains, “Evil begets evil.” Even Vito himself, when he clubs Korben and steals his tickets, has his plans immediately foiled. (It is interesting to note that intention seems to play a part in this as well, since even though the Magalores and Zorg are undone by their own violent acts, both Leeloo and Korben go unpunished for theirs.) But more to the point, violence and warfare are the very reason for Leeloo’s loss of faith in humanity, as she is devastated by humanity’s own ability to undermine its very existence. In short, the film looks scornfully on the organized force of violence, whether for profit or revenge.

The last theme worthy of discussion is consumerism, which is best exemplified by Zorg himself; however, before I delve into his character, there are some aspects of the film unrelated to its villain that addresses this theme as well. When we first meet Korben, his home is full of gadgets. The room is smaller than a college dormitory but holds more technology than it does people. The shower is on top of the fridge. There is both a television and a video monitor. And most interesting of all, the bed pops out a new mattress every time it is put away, presumably discarding the old one. Much of New York is filled with trash and pollution. Even the airport is stockpiled with garbage. But that is the result of capitalist consumerism. Everything is disposable, from glasses and mattresses to taxi drivers and henchmen. This is pervasive throughout the culture and part of the absurdity of the world. These things are just things, unnecessary parts of life: What people really need, the film suggests, are earth, wind, water, fire, and love. It is a denial of human kind’s own radical freedom. Characters are defined by their occupations, clothed as military men, priests, scientists, sailors, sexy McDonald’s employees, sexy flight attendants, or sexy patients. (It should go without saying that the sexualized women in the film are not a embrace of those values, as Leeloo demonstrates by eventually acquiring actual clothing rather than minimally-covering thermal bandages.) With that said, Zorg is this attitude personified. His goal is not to improve the world but to create more waste. He tells Vito, “Look at all these little things! So busy now! Notice how each one is useful. A lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color. Now, think about all those people that created them. Technicians, engineers, hundreds of people, who will be able to feed their children tonight, so those children can grow up big and strong and have little teeny children of their own, and so on and so forth. Thus, adding to the great chain of life. You see, father, by causing a little destruction, I am in fact encouraging life. In reality, you and I are in the same business.” That is to say that Zorg sees people as interchangeable with machines, as cogs designed to serve a purpose not of their own making but of someone else’s. But Zorg’s facticity, his relative privilege within the socio-economic hierarchy, is ultimately meaningless in the face of someone as free and authentically himself as Korben Dallas. Even when Zorg is faced with his own death from a cherry, the moment he peers into das nicht, he fails to recognize his own inauthenticity as he, like the cogs of society, is only a part of the great chain, taking orders from Mr. Shadow.

I’d like to end this essay by returning to a point I made at the start, which is that these ideas have been better explored elsewhere. These questions of being and not being are not developed as sophisticatedly as they are in something like Hamlet or Blade Runner, but to suggest that The Fifth Element doesn’t engage them is an ignorant misreading of the text. As Besson says about the movie, it is not "big theme movie.” It is fractured and fragmented, a collection of ideas under a much bigger umbrella. And that likely stems from the fact that, at one point, the script was some 400 pages long. To cut that down to around 120 requires a really tight focus to stuff everything in there, something that the film doesn’t quite have. In fact, one of the things I considered was that it should have been longer, that because so much of its ideas are under-explored, the film would actually benefit from another half hour at least. Of course, then it might not be as brisk, beautiful, and bizarre as it is. I’m not saying this is a perfect film by any means, and there are plenty of better science fiction films. But it is nevertheless a solid picture. However, to recognize that fact requires close, careful consideration. If a viewer is preoccupied or coming to the text on his or her own terms rather than the film’s, then surely it will result in disappointment and frustration. Yet should a viewer come to it as it is, one may be surprised by what he or she finds. Or to put it more bluntly, as Heidegger does, “The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead ChapelMulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla

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