Directed by Luc Besson

Starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Tiny Lister, Chris Tucker & Luke Perry.

"The Fifth Element"

Opened: May 9, 1997 | Rated: PG-13

While gorgeous, crafty and utterly unique in many respects, "The Fifth Element" often brings to mind other science fiction. A futuristic metropolis-and-outer space epic, it's "Brazil" meets "Babylon 5" -- eye candy for the art house set, the same way "Independence Day" was for the studio machine.

With an average Joe hero (Bruce Willis) battling an ultimate evil from space, a villain named Zorg (Gary Oldman), and a sexy, near-immortal super-being (Milla Jovovich) at the center of the plot, if this sounds to you like something a 16-year-old might write, you wouldn't be far off.

Director Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita," "The Professional") penned the first draft of this 23rd Century adventure in his teens, tinkering with it for decades until he his name became big enough to win him the studio backing ($90 million) his pet project required.

Complex and relentlessly paced, "The Fifth Element" opens with a 20th Century prelude reminiscent of "Stargate," in which archeologists discover Egyptian hieroglyphics that forecast intergalactic doom.

With this premise come the Mondoshawan, a race of giant, armored beetle people that guard the secret of an ultimate weapon against evil, which has been kept hidden in an Egyptian crypt until these nosy historians stumbled across it.

The weapon uses the mythological four elements of fire, water, wind and earth in conjunction with a genetically perfect life form -- the fifth element -- to destroy an ominously vague evil that masses every 5,000 years out in the galaxy somewhere before making a bee-line for Earth.

In the film's present -- 23rd Century New York City, where ex-war hero Korben Dallas (Willis) drives a cab -- Besson lifts the hovering cars and concrete canyons from "Blade Runner" with spectacular results. His future is a visual buffet of cityscapes, grandiose spacecraft and outrageous costumes (designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier).

Also borrowing heavily from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" for it's look and it's dark mood, "The Fifth Element" occasionally postures on deeper themes like universal harmony, but ultimately opts for the spectacular shoot-'em up.

It's been 5,000 years and the vague evil is on its way, so the Mondoshawan return to Earth, but their ship is destroyed by another band of aliens, the Mangalores, that look like bull dogs crossed with defensive linemen. They work for villain Zorg, who plans to profit nicely from cleaning up after the encroaching evil.

Korben Dallas is recruited by default to help assemble the ultimate weapon. The fifth element -- Leeloo the genetically perfect being (Jovovich) -- falls through the roof of his cab while running from the Mangalores.

Naturally, the ultimate weapon is unnecessarily complicated and parts of it are scattered hither and yon, requiring a lot of dashing about and shooting at the bulldog people.

Am I making fun of "The Fifth Element?" Perhaps a little. But what sci-fi doesn't sound silly when you break it down?

"The Fifth Element" is a brilliantly gratuitous bit of escapism. Besson's vision is incredibly clear -- he obviously spent sleepless nights pouring over the most minute details. His film relies too much on editing around a thunderous soundtrack and it borrows heavily from other films, but does it with a giggle (there's even a character with Princess Leia buns).

He also recruited a terrific cast. Bruce Willis could play a somewhat vulnerable hero like this in his sleep. Jovovich, a high-priced fashion model at age 12 who turned to acting in her teens, is bewitching as a child-like supreme being on whose shoulder the fate of the universe rests.

Everyone else is practically incidental, but there is some clever casting. Tiny Lister, the cross-eyed colossus known for tough guy roles in "Posse" and "Universal Soldier," plays the galactic president. Chris Tucker ("Friday") is intentionally grating as a Prince-meets-Howard Stern talk show host that narrates part of the adventure for his listeners.

"The Fifth Element" trades mostly on it's looks, and while it is far prettier than it is clever, every dime of the huge budget is there on the screen. The computer animation is the best I've ever seen, and just in general it is an eye-popping, exciting, comic bookish, sensory overload experience.

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