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.