How The Fifth Element Subverted Sci-Fi Movies

Twenty years ago, Luc Besson’s visually stunning film hinged its story not on action or violence, but on love.

Bruce Willis, star of <i>The Fifth Element</i>
Columbia / Gaumont

The most radical element of Luc Besson’s 1997 space opera The Fifth Element is not the absurdly opulent future-costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. It isn’t the bizarre Southern twang of the Hitler haircut-sporting villain Zorg (Gary Oldman), nor is it Chris Tucker’s performance as an intergalactic sex symbol who hosts a radio show. It’s that Bruce Willis cries at the opera. In budget, in scale, and in casting, The Fifth Element feels like any other big Hollywood sci-fi movie, featuring popular English-speaking actors running around a high-concept world, complete with lavish sets and CGI effects. But not many blockbusters would let its male star weep at a musical performance.

That set piece comes in the middle of the film as Willis’s character, Korben Dallas, a gun-wielding space cowboy with spiked, peroxide-blonde hair, takes in a show by the blue alien singer Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn). Besson’s film has, up until now, been a relentless blitz of action, as Korben follows the mysterious Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) across the galaxy to help retrieve mystical stones that will help her save the world from a great, encroaching evil. But for a second, the movie grinds to a halt, letting Korben take in the extraterrestrial songstress’s solo with tears in his eyes.

Diva Plavalaguna is one of The Fifth Element’s many MacGuffins—it turns out she has the stones in her possession, and she hands them over to Korben after a wild shootout in the venue. But the genius of her scene is that her voice prompts a genuine emotional change in the film’s maverick male protagonist, nudging him from being a hard-edged renegade into something much more openhearted. This internal shift is a bigger deal than any of The Fifth Element’s action sequences—a dramatic device that helps distinguish Besson from his genre-director peers, and that resurfaces in his new film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Besson takes an all-American cowboy hero, a trope as old as the Flash Gordon sci-fi films he’s aping, and uses not violence, but art, to help teach Korben a larger lesson about the importance of other people in his life.

Valerian, opening in theaters this week, is already drawing the same kind of polarized reaction The Fifth Element got 20 years ago, with critics praising its visual boldness while expressing, at best, a little confusion about its dialogue and storytelling choices. Besson, the French director who pioneered the stylish cinema du look of France’s 1980s, likes to use grand imagery to present his often simplistic narratives. But beneath the surface, The Fifth Element is a highly underrated piece of subversive Hollywood cinema.

Stylishness aside, The Fifth Element does have a plot of sorts: Korben is on a quest to unite the four “elements” (fire, earth, water, and air) with a fifth, Leeloo—a humanoid woman possessed of an inherent goodness that she can use to fight an invading evil. But the film’s ultimate message is that the fifth element is really love: Near the end, it turns out that Korben’s declaration of his love for Leeloo, and hers for him, allows her to activate her celestial powers in the movie’s climax. This hopelessly sentimental reveal isn’t an empty one, though; these characters don’t just fall in love because that’s what happens at the end of movies. Their union is the culmination of the transformation distilled in that opera scene, where Korben realizes there’s more to life than pulling off the next mission.

The couple’s meet-cute at the beginning of The Fifth Element sees Leeloo crashing into Korben’s flying cab. When they first encounter each other, Korben is a familiar Han Solo type—a military washout and a habitual rule-breaker who’s so independent-minded that he lives in a cupboard-sized apartment. Leeloo, meanwhile, is an orange-haired, scantily clad space nymph. Korben’s initial interest in her seems to be sexual, and he plants a kiss on her just a few minutes after they meet. Leeloo responds by pointing a gun at his head and saying, in her alien language, “never without my permission.”

Besson doesn’t want Leeloo’s rebuke to be a tossed-off example of Korben’s roguish charm; instead, it’s the first step in a longer learning process for the hero. Throughout the film, Korben expresses regret over the unwanted kiss, and as Leeloo takes charge of their mission, Korben becomes little more than her hired gun. Leeloo constantly tells him to let her handle things, and with good reason—she can take out an entire room of bad guys with only her fists. Soon enough, Korben, whose shoot-first approach grows less useful as things progress, comes to see that there’s a greater beauty and meaning in the world.

How else to explain Besson’s insistence on Korben experiencing the opera performance by himself, sitting transfixed at Diva Plavalaguna’s solo while Leeloo fights alien villains? Or the fact that the final set piece is not an extravagant combat sequence, but a simple profession of love that Besson carefully builds to? At that pivotal point in the story, Leeloo is crestfallen—she says she’s witnessed so much violence during her quest that she’s worried humanity might not be worth saving. Korben’s evolution is crucial to winning her over, to proving that there’s still a chance to redeem mankind.

Besson’s sincerity might not have worked as well if it weren’t backed up with his similarly free-spirited design sensibilities. The Fifth Element might be less memorable if it hadn’t followed through on its operatic storytelling, but each frame of the film is a delight to look at, each set a dizzying wonder, each costume (down to Korben’s favorite skintight tank top) a daring fashion choice. The release of Valerian, another emotionally grounded genre work by Besson, is a reminder that the director’s 20-year-old sci-fi classic is worth a second look for much more than its pioneering visuals.