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Kill Ugly Foreigners!

The Fifth Element
In Love With the Future: Milla Jovovich upholds physical beauty in the face of alien bad looks.

Soccer Mom evil and 'The Fifth Element'

By Richard von Busack

OH, THAT ARCHETYPAL battle of good vs. evil--why can't the two just be friends? The struggle is especially boring in outer-space movies, where good vs. evil always means beautiful vs. ugly.

The aliens taking over Earth in Robin Cook's Invasion on TV last week used a space virus that caused people to break out in scales, but it would have been a more interesting story if evolution into benignity and intelligence was unfortunately accompanied by alligator skin. Naturally, however, the transformation made people ugly and crypto-fascist. Fortunately, the world as we know it was saved in the last 15 minutes--sort of a record. If you see someone with psoriasis, though, shoot first and ask questions later--they might be an alien straggler.

In space opera, the villains have to be so ugly that a six-year-old can see that they're evil. Let detractors of the Star Trek franchise say what they will, but over the course of 25 years, the conventionally handsome and conventionally ugly have mingled, regardless of the law that the good are pure of skin and strong of chin and that evil has whiskers, a squint, a slouch and a foreign accent.

In the new editions of the franchise, Michael Dorn's Worf is the most handsome, manly entity around, despite having a tortoise shell glued to his forehead; Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard has a great deal of sexual magnetism while still being rather short, definitely neurotic and very bald.

The Star Wars trilogy would have been better if Darth Vadar had been as handsome as Han Solo or if choosing the Dark Side made you wittier, smoother and better dressed, as opposed to being scarred, shabbier and on the whole economically worse off--the inevitable cost of joining revolutions in real life.

The aliens in the completely silly The Fifth Element are bad; they work for someone called Mr. Shadow, and they look like groupers with acromegaly. They hang around in schools like groupers, too, and have croaking voices, possibly also like groupers. They show up like landlords every 300 years, ready to take over the Earth. Only love, the Fifth Element (in addition to the ancient quartet of air, fire, water and earth), keeps them at bay. Fighting the aliens is supposed to add to their evil, violence only begetting violence. Yet there is plenty of chimp-fodder--gunfire and explosions--for the finale.

The production design is pretty, but the plot is knitted together from the floor sweepings from a variety of space operas and a hefty dose of Blade Runner. Everyman hero Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is still unshaven even in the year 2300, while The Fifth Element of loooove is embodied by an Aphrodite figure: a flat-breasted superhero goddess named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), with an Orange Crush­colored shag and a plastic jumper that all makes her look like Raggedy Ann 2000. Leeloo and Willis fight not just aliens but their fifth columnists as well, most notably the millionaire Zorg (Gary Oldman), who in addition to the Hitler comma of hair he wears also sports some kind of vinyl sheeting on his head.

The comic relief is provided by Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), a black, hip intergalactic TV star with a rattling line of patter. Rhod shows up on TV before he enters the movie as a character, and his broadcast riffs are the must authentically futuristic moments. No doubt the awful future will be full of powerful TV figures who talk rapidly in incomprehensible slang while being bathed in near God-like celebrity, self-love and mass adoration. Unfortunately, Rhod sticks around. He's there during the battle scenes, emitting five-octaves-above-middle-C screeches of panic.

The Fifth Element cements Luc Besson's title as France's worst director--quite a feat in a career already marred by the undersea preposterousness of The Big Blue and Christopher Lambert's featherweight frown in Subway. Despite the computer-generated towering future cityscape, the film gives zero sense of how tomorrow might work. There are 20 billion people, but they all seem to living in the same building.

The Fifth Element is supposed to be redeemed by its simplicity--the conflict of good (Jovovich, Willis) vs. evil (ugly, big-lipped groupers). Meanwhile, effeminate black men (Ruby Rhod) or stupid black men (the president here, black but not too bright) look on. No need to pin the racism on the Europeans; it could have just as well been an Indian story of light-skinned Aryans vs. black-skinned Dravidians, I suppose. Sometimes the most ancient, hallowed stories are the most stupid.


Fifth Element Online

Official studio page for the movie.

A fan's page devoted to director Luc Besson and
even more about Besson.

Bruce Willis' filmography.


ON THE WHOLE, The Fifth Element wasn't as interesting as the conflict of good vs. evil I was involved with in the parking lot after the screening. It was an archetypal battle. A woman in a Mitsubishi minivan almost ran over my feet in her haste to get out of the parking lot. Here, we had the embodiment of "evil," even though the undiscerning would have just witnessed a soccer mom in a rush--pure blind evil, ready even to run ruthlessly over the feet of our hero in her passion to get to the exit one minute faster than anyone else.

Our hero, me (i.e. "the force of good"--good but not too good, a flawed human being with a dark side), was also motivated by his desire to get out of the parking lot. The villainess and her henchmen (two children in toddler seats who were egging her on) were ready to kill to obtain their monomaniacal goals. Our outnumbered hero relied on his catlike reflexes to avoid certain death.

I don't expect the struggle of good vs. evil to have much shading in American movies; we've been fighting evil for so long, on the beaches and in the parking lots, that we have to see our enemies (communists, fags, terrorists, ethnics, fascists, the ugly, et al.) as Satan's spawn. As H.L. Mencken wrote in the 1920s, Americans never recognize an idea unless it has white wings or a forked tail.

But Besson is French, where the nature of good and evil had been tested by the Occupation and Revolution, so I would have expected something a little pithier. Perhaps a vision of Soccer Mom evil, the kind of evil that the movies usually fear to address, evil with mixed motives, evil that isn't particularly bad-looking, evil with a desire to live and children to nurture--all of those many reasons that turn a person to the dark side.

The Fifth Element (PG-13; 127 min.), directed by Luc Besson, written by Robert Mark Kamen and Besson, photographed by Thierry Arbogast and starring Bruce Willis.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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