Big badaboom! In a world where the dystopian gloom of “Blade Runner” long defined the look of movie sci-fi, French auteur Luc Besson‘s gleefully ridiculous space opera “The Fifth Element” was an explosion of riotous cinematic colour.
It was 20 years ago, on 7 May 1997, that the world first saw Bruce Willis in a backless neon T-shirt and Milla Jovovich with matching orange hair. Standing on the cusp of the digital effects revolution, the flick combined nascent computer-generated imagery with old-school practical effects — and it still looks fantastic. It was a glorious mess and an international hit, and it inspires fans and cosplayers to this day.
I spoke to some of the stars and filmmakers by phone from Britain, France and the US to find out what made “The Fifth Element” so special. Got your multipass? Let’s dive in…
Use the Force, Luc
Luc Besson famously began writing his sci-fi opus as a teenager. Inspired by French sci-fi comics, he wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of the story until, 15 years later and now a celebrated filmmaker, he had two sprawling scripts.
Robert Kamen: “It made no sense. It just made no sense.”
Besson invited Kamen to Paris to work on the story, now combined into one script.
Kamen: “I got there and he shows me he’s built all the models already. He already has the costumes. He had all the creatures. I was just blown away. His imagination was incredible.”
The pair set to work writing and rewriting. Among the changes, lead character Zaltman Bleros became the heroic Korben Dallas, suggested by Kamen when Besson wanted a quintessentially American name. Mel Gibson passed on the role, so Bruce Willis got the job.
After Besson directed him in “Leon: The Professional”, Gary Oldman once again did bad guy duty as the ruthless Zorg. Ian Holm was delightful as a bumbling monk, alongside then 23-year-old actor Charlie Creed-Miles.
Charlie Creed-Miles: “I was there on the first day with all the cast and crew. They said Bruce Willis is coming in tomorrow and it’s very important that everyone observes these rules: No-one is allowed to look him in the eye or initiate a conversation with him unless he speaks to you first. I was quite miffed by that.”
Iain Smith: “Bruce Willis had the reputation for being quite difficult but on this he was an absolute sweetheart. The reason was he totally trusted Luc, as they all did.”
Besson filled the supporting cast with unconventional performers, such as comedian Lee Evans, model Ève Salvail and trip-hop star Tricky. Cosmically camp DJ Ruby Rhod was played by Chris Tucker, although the role was originally intended for Prince.
After an extensive hunt for someone who could embody the perfect being of the title, model and actress Milla Jovovich was cast as elemental living weapon Leeloo.
Milla Jovovich: “‘The Fifth Element’ was such a huge moment for me. That opening sequence, waking up in that laboratory, doing the scene on the ledge, was one of the most challenging and unbelievably exciting moments of my life.”
Creed-Miles: “Milla Jovovich was sort of a crazy American model, running around like a lunatic. She was full of beans.”
At the time, Besson was married to French actress Maïwenn, who played the blue-skinned opera-singing alien Diva Plavalaguna. But he and Jovovich later married after bonding over Leeloo’s alien tongue.
Kamen: “Luc invented a whole language for her. They would speak to each other in this language. It was cute, but it was bizarre. Did I learn the language? F*** no.”
The evil ball of fire and the regeneration sequence that gives birth to Leeloo were created using computer-generated imagery by effects company Digital Domain, but spacecraft such as the Fhloston Paradise hotel and creatures such as the thuggish Mangalores were created as practical effects — actual physical models and make-up. Make-up maestro Nick Dudman oversaw the creation of the film’s various grotesque aliens.
Nick Dudman: “The digital people were experimenting and trying things, so there was always the question, if it doesn’t work, what do we do? Nowadays you don’t question digital CGI’s ability to do anything, whereas back then there would be questions as to whether it would work.”
Although Besson hoped to shoot in France, the film was shot at the famous Pinewood studios in the UK.
Creed-Miles: “[There were] massive, massive sets that went on for miles. You could get lost in them. It felt like being in, which it kind of was.”
Dudman: “It was very focused — Luc is very focused — but it was lots of laughing, because a lot of what we were doing was blatantly silly.”
Creed-Miles: “I’d never worked with a director that operates the camera as well. Every shot, every frame in that film has been framed by Luc Besson himself. Straight away I noticed the beautiful way he frames everything. He used a big anamorphic lens, like a letterbox. He was very on top of everything. He was the archetypal director, a real control freak.”
A huge part of the film’s signature look were the audacious, colourful costumes, conceived by legendary fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Smith: “[Gaultier’s] approach wasn’t what we in the movie business would think of as a costume designer. He was jumping around changing people’s jackets and putting scarfs on them and giving them hats to wear. He was a constant creative watching eye.”
Creed-Miles: “I had a Friar Tuck haircut and a rubberised conical bra, it looked like half of Madonna’s conical bra on top of my head. I was loving it.”
Beyond the fifth
“The Fifth Element” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May 1997. It was a smash hit internationally and opened at No. 1 one at the US box office, although American viewers and critics didn’t warm to the film as much as audiences elsewhere. (The Wall Street Journal called it “gibberish”.)
Smith: “Sony [the distributor] was puzzled by it. It was received with perplexity in the United States, because sci-fi wasn’t meant to be funny. Conversely in Britain and Europe it went down a treat.”
Twenty years on, even those who worked on the film don’t have all the answers to the film’s mysteries — like, for example, what actually was the flaming space monster thing?
Kamen: “[Luc] said ‘It’s the evil, it wants to control the world.’ I said, ‘Right, but where did it come from?’ He said, ‘It comes from the evil.'”
One interesting and possibly unique thing about the film is that Korben Dallas and Zorg, the story’s protagonist and antagonist, never actually meet — in fact, they aren’t even aware of each other.
Kamen: “That was a conscious decision. It’s not a story about a conflict between two men. It’s about a guy who wants to control the universe, and a guy who gets caught up in a love story — and one has nothing to do with the other.”
Creed-Miles: “If you watch it again, you’ll see that it’s actually me who saves the universe. I’d like you to point that out in your article. I blow some dust. It’s one link in a long line, but as far as I’m concerned, I saved the universe and that’s that.”
Despite being a hugely prolific writer and producer in the intervening years, Besson has never returned to the universe of “The Fifth Element”. In today’s world of blockbuster sequels and reboots, it almost seems strange to find a sci-fi smash that stands alone — although rumours of a sequel have persisted.
Jovovich: “I wouldn’t say no…”
Kamen: “There was a script. I think we had a 180-page script or something, a crazy, endless thing.”
Exactly 20 years after “The Fifth Element”, Besson returns to sci-fi this summer with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets“, a deliriously stylish space opera also inspired by French sci-fi comics — and this time powered by the unlimited potential of digital imagery.
Kamen: “If you liked ‘The Fifth Element’, wait until you see ‘Valerian’. It makes ‘The Fifth Element’ look like a child did it with a crayon.”
“The Fifth Element” returns in all its eye-popping glory on 4K UHD Blu-ray this month. Celebrate the 20th anniversary with other fans when the film blasts back into theatres across the US on Sunday May 14 and Wednesday May 17.
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