Ode to The Fifth Element

It was nineteen ninety-seven and my then girlfriend at the time and I went to the MJR movie theater in Chesterfield Township to see this film called The Fifth Element. We had seen some advertisement that claimed it was the best science fiction movie since Star Wars or maybe it was the Star Wars for the nineties or something. I don’t remember how it was phrased. What I do remember is sarcastically thinking “yeah, right!” And that’s pretty much what I was thinking when I walked into the movie theater. But I did like sci-fi movies and Bruce Willis. And if I remember correctly (it’s been 23 years), my girlfriend who was into art and fashion was interested in the movie because of the work of Jean Paul Gaultier who did the fashion design for the film. Plus the two of us didn’t need an excuse to see it, we pretty much went to the movie theater every weekend as it was, sometimes more than once. So anything that looked even half-way appealing we probably bought a couple tickets to see. In the late nineties, there wasn’t a shortage of half-way decent movies to see. If anything, the late nineties was a bit of a cinematic golden era.

The first thing that grabbed me about the movie was the opening in the ancient desert ruins. I’ve never been to the desert, but i have a bit of a soft spot for it when it comes to cinema and especially science fiction. It probably comes in part from seeing Star Wars as a kid with Luke on Tatooine but also my childhood fascination with ancient Egyptian stuff. By nineteen ninety-seven I was eighteen years old and just about the graduate high school. By that point in my life I had been sucked in by not just Star Wars but also Stargate and countless other films that featured ancient Egyptian ruins or post-apocalyptic sci-fi films that took place in the desert. So combining the desert with ancient Egyptian-like ruins and then adding aliens, you’ve already earned a soft spot in in heart. Especially when you open the film like that.

But the movie went on to just be stylistically weird in a way I had barely seen before. It was… European. More specifically… French. Which at first brush, I was turned off by. It had more style than logic in its design. It was bright and unforgiving in its fashion style. But as I sat there watching it, it began to work for me. Partly because it felt alien. These were not the choices I would have made as a filmmaker making this movie.

In fact I would have never imagined them or considered them if someone else brought them to me. But here they were and they were growing on me. And it wasn’t just the costume design that was kind of alien and odd and definitely French. The eclectic mix of music, interesting editing style, set design, props, it all took me for a loop. Just in what I would come to regard as an unexpected and great way.

As far as I remember, I walked out of the theater shocked at how much I liked the movie and pronounced that the claim made by the advertising was actually right. This was just as good as Star Wars or whatever it said. Just in a different way. And this was coming from someone who loved the Star Wars trilogy and idolized George Lucas as one of my filmmaking heroes. Now I had to add Luc Besson to that list. At the time.

When it was available I bought the movie on DVD. Decades later, Blu-ray and then 4K Blu-ray not long after. In fact it’s sitting there paused on my TV as I write this. General Munro and his two peeps just showed up to the apartment of Korben Dallas to try and convince him to go on this mission.

It’s safe to say at this point (and for a couple decades now), that this movie has been in my top five favorite films list since seeing it for the first time. I won’t spoil where it falls in the top five or what the others are (for now), but it’s in good company.

It’s also safe to say that I’ve seen this movie many times. More than I can remember and it was only a handful of years ago I picked up the Blu-ray and then not too many years after, the 4K blu-ray. Both in the same Best Buy exclusive steelbook case. Which is nice, on the outside, but leaves much to be desired on the inside with its basic chrome blue sheen and no artwork. The quality of the 4K transfer is great. Though it really does bring out the grain of the film. But I would rather have that then some grain removal process performed that makes everything soft and artificially smooth. The high dynamic range (HDR) and the colors really pop in this film. Though not as much as a more modern movie shot digitally. But I’ve noticed this to true of all the ten plus year old film to 4K HDR transfers I’ve seen. They look great, but they lack that digital pop and precision image that comes from something like an ARRI Alexa or RED or Sony CineAlta digital cinema camera, or even dare I say, modern Kodak Vision3 film stock that always looks more digital to me. To the point where I wonder why filmmakers even bother to shoot film anymore (at least in 35mm and higher). Vision3 seems to change its look on Super8 and 16mm in my opinion. Probably due to less mechanically sound cameras producing more frame movement and lenses that are not as modern. But that’s a subject for a different entry.
Personally I like both the older film and newer cleaner digital looks. But some may prefer one over the other and I have a feeling that might depend on your age. I’m both old enough and young enough to be used to and appreciate both.

At this point, I’m going to end this here. But not without first mentioning Valerian the City of a Thousand Planets. Another Luc Besson movie and the story(from the comics) which originally inspired The Fifth Element. A movie I also saw in the theater and own on 4k Blu-ray. And speaking of digital pop, that one has it more-so than The Fifth Element.

It’s not as good of a movie and doesn’t have the cult following The Fifth Element has. It also didn’t strike me the same way. In other words, it didn’t have the same affect on me as when I first saw The Fifth Element. Of course I was much older seeing this one and I saw it alone. I wasn’t a young impressionable eighteen year old about to graduate high school with all my dreams and life ahead of me and deep in the honeymoon phase of a relationship with an artsy girlfriend who might have helped influence my acceptance of the art-meets-runway style of The Fifth Element. By the time I saw Valerian, I was at a point in my life where I was used to that visual, artistic and fashion style, having lived with The Fifth Element for twenty years and plenty of other stylistically dynamic movies I hadn’t yet seen by eighteen years old but had seen by the time of seeing Valerian. In fact, at first I didn’t really like Valerian and was disappointed. Not because of those things, but maybe partially as a result of having my hopes up that I would feel that dynamic way again. The way I had when I first saw The Fifth Element. But… no cigar.

You can’t go back to being young and seeing the world anew again. At a certain point you just begin to see recycled old things and if you’re lucky, you can pull some semblance of nostalgia out of them. At least enough to remind you how you felt about the old thing to the point where you might find some similarity in the new thing and enjoy it as a result. Sort of a love-by-vague-association-with-something-you’re-nostalgic-for kind of thing. Which eventually did happen with Valerian and me. But it took a  couple watches before I really began to see it. So it has since grown on me and I do enjoy Valerian quite a bit now.

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