Twenty years ago, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element introduced the world to the wild-eyed wonder of Leeloo, the surly charisma of Korben Dallas, the murderous malice of Jean-Baptise Emanuel Zorg, and the look-serving exuberant majesty of Ruby Rhod. It is a wild, brightly colored world full of weirdos, aliens, assassins, and the most memorable characters this side of Fhloston Paradise, brought to life by a deliriously good ensemble cast including Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, and Chris Tucker. While many sci-fi films have gone on to find a cult following, few have as much cultural resonance or inspire as many excited bursts of long-simmering love as The Fifth Element. Though divisive amongst critics upon its release in 1997, The Fifth Element has earned legions of devotees that devour its unique brand of pop sci-fi weirdness at repertory screenings and on home video.
In honor of the film’s twentieth anniversary and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s 4K UHD Blu-ray re-release, The Fifth Element screened at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery as part of Cinespia’s annual Cemetery Screening series, which as we have mentioned on Nerdist before is the single best thing to do in LA in the summertime. But what did it mean to the writer and director, Luc Besson, that thousands of sci-fi-hungry cinephiles gathered on blankets to watch a screening of The Fifth Element under the stars some twenty years later? To find out, I sat down with him briefly before the film started.
“Uh, surprising,” Besson told me with a laugh, sporting a bemused look and a slick t-shirt featuring artwork of Jean-Claude Mézières’s Valerian and Laureline. The shirt may not seem like an auspicious choice of apparle considering that his next movie is a feature film adaptation of Valerian, starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, but Besson actually hired Mézières to do concept art for his long-simmering sci-fi epic.
“Surprising because at the beginning when the film opened in the U.S., it was very weird,” Besson continued. “The critics were awful, and some things didn’t work so much in the beginning. But I think the biggest pleasure for a director is getting to see that, 20 years later, your film is still alive and goes from generation to generation. I have seen, through the 20 years, 50-year-olds discovering the film and then giving the DVD to a 12-year-old. I’ve seen all that, and it’s just amazing.”
Like other classics of the genre, the film has a staying power long beyond its box office tenure. The brand new 4K restoration makes The Fifth Element look stunning, thanks in no small part to its commitment to practical effects and its lavishly designed world (including costumes created by Jean Paul Gaultier). For Besson, the most amusing part of the film’s life after release is how it takes on new meaning to each person who discovers it.
“It’s funny how they know what they need,” said of fans who share The Fifth Element with others. “If there’s a film they like because it brings something to them—I don’t know what exactly, it could be an image or love, or hope, or color. You don’t know, but they find something in it that no one can tell them what to think or what to do. ‘This is mine,’ you know? And I love that. It’s funny how during the last 20 years I’ve met a lot of fans of the film who don’t care so much about me. You know, they say, ‘Yeah, you’re the guy. Yeah, sure sure.’ But they don’t care because the film is their film, not mine. And it’s very strange.”
Judging by the throngs of people dressed as Leeloo, Korben Dallas, and even a few Diva Plavalagunas, The Fifth Element meant quite a lot to the assembled audience. It also meant quite a lot to Besson to bring the film from concept to completion considering he first conceptualized it at the tender age of sixteen. In fact, when Besson first thought of The Fifth Element, it wasn’t a movie at all, but something entirely different.
“I started to write at 16 and shoot at 30, so I had the time to think about it,” Besson told me, reflecting on what it was like to finally start making something he had been working on for so long. “But when I started to write at 16 it was more like a novel. It was not a film in my head. I never thought about making a film of it. So it was a novel for a long time and then, at a certain point, 10 years later, I said, ‘You know what? I would love to make a film of that.’ But I started changing a lot of things because a novel is really different.”
Like any project that spans the course of decades, The Fifth Element evolved quite a bit from when it was first conceived to when it finally entered production. One of the hardest aspects of The Fifth Element for Besson was writing the script, and the key to unlocking it lay within his teenage sister’s homework, of all places.
“I struggled a lot with the script of The Fifth Element for a long time,” Besson explained. “I was younger, I had less experience, and it took me forever to figure out. And you know how I found the theme of The Fifth Element? My sister at the time, she was like 13, and I helped her with homework, and she had an exercise about Plato. You know, the Greek philosopher. He wrote about [the five elements which were thought to comprise all matter], you know the water, the earth, the fire, and the air. And the fifth element is the human being. And I read the thing, and I said ‘Fuck! That’s exactly what I’m missing.’ So, I have to apologize because I stole from Plato. When I see him up there [in heaven], you know, later? I will go to him and say, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry I stole your book.'”
The Fifth Element is available now on 4K UHD Blu-ray.
Images: Sony Pictures