The Fifth Element

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The Fifth Element
Fifth element poster (1997).jpg
International release poster
Directed byLuc Besson
Produced byPatrice Ledoux
Screenplay by
Story byLuc Besson
Music byÉric Serra
CinematographyThierry Arbogast
Edited bySylvie Landra
Distributed byGaumont Buena Vista International[1]
Release date(s)
  • 7 May 1997 (1997-05-07)
Running time126 minutes
Budget$90 million[2][3][4][5][6]
Box office$263,920,180[7]
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This article is about the 1997 film. For other uses, see Fifth Element (disambiguation).
The Fifth Element
Fifth element poster (1997).jpg
International release poster
Directed byLuc Besson
Produced byPatrice Ledoux
Screenplay by
Story byLuc Besson
Music byÉric Serra
CinematographyThierry Arbogast
Edited bySylvie Landra
Distributed byGaumont Buena Vista International[1]
Release date(s)
  • 7 May 1997 (1997-05-07)
Running time126 minutes
Budget$90 million[2][3][4][5][6]
Box office$263,920,180[7]

The Fifth Element (French: Le Cinquième élément ) is a 1997 English-language French science fiction action film directed, co-written, and based on a story by Luc Besson. The film stars Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, and Milla Jovovich. Mostly set in the twenty-third century, the film's central plot involves the survival of planet Earth, which becomes the responsibility of Korben Dallas (Willis), a taxicab driver and former special forces major, after a young woman (Jovovich) falls into his cab. Dallas joins forces with her to recover four mystical stones essential for the defence of Earth against an impending attack.

Besson started writing the story that became The Fifth Element when he was 16 years old; he was 38 when the film opened in cinemas.[8] Comic book writers Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières, whose comics provided inspiration for parts of the film, were hired for production design. Costume design was by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The Fifth Element received mainly positive reviews, although it tended to polarise critics. It has been called the best and worst summer blockbuster of all time. The film was a financial success, earning more than $263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget. At the time of its release it was the most expensive European film ever made,[9] and it remained the highest-grossing French film at the box-office until the release of The Intouchables in 2011.[10]


In 1914, aliens known as Mondoshawans arrive at an ancient Egyptian temple to collect the only weapon capable of defeating a Great Evil that appears every 5,000 years. It consists of four stones, representing the four classical elements, and a sarcophagus containing a fifth element in the form of a human, which combines the power of the other four elements into a Divine Light capable of defeating the evil. The Mondoshawans promise their contact, a priest, that they will return with the element stones in time to stop the Great Evil, which will return in three centuries.

In 2263, the Great Evil appears in space in the form of a giant ball of black fire and destroys an attacking Earth spaceship. The current Mondoshawan contact, priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), informs the President of Earth (Tom Lister, Jr.) of the history of the Great Evil and the weapon that can stop it. As the Mondoshawans return to Earth they are ambushed by Mangalores, a race hired by the industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), who has been instructed by the Great Evil to acquire the stones.

The Mondoshawans' spacecraft is destroyed, though the stones are not on board; the only item to be recovered is a hand of the fifth element. Scientists take it to a New York City laboratory and use it to re-construct a humanoid woman known as Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). Terrified of her unfamiliar surroundings, she escapes confinement and jumps off a ledge to land in the flying taxicab of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a divorcee and former major in the special forces.

Dallas delivers Leeloo to Cornelius and his apprentice, David (Charlie Creed-Miles), whereupon Cornelius learns that the Mondoshawans entrusted the four element stones to the alien Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco), an opera singer. Zorg kills the Mangalores because of their failure to obtain the stones, but their compatriots determine to seize them for themselves. Upon learning from the Mondoshawans that the stones are in Plavalaguna's possession, General Munro (Brion James), Dallas' former superior, re-enlists Dallas and orders him to travel undercover, as a rigged radio contest winner, to meet Plavalaguna on a luxury cruise. The publicity surrounding the contest attracts the Mangalores and Zorg. Dallas takes Leeloo with him, while Cornelius instructs David to prepare the ancient temple designed to house the stones, before stowing away on the space plane transporting Dallas to the cruise liner.

Plavalaguna is killed when the Mangalores attack the ship, but Dallas succeeds in retrieving the stones. During the struggle with the Mangalores he kills their leader. After shooting and seriously wounding Leeloo, Zorg finds a carrying case that he assumes contains the stones, which he takes back to his spacecraft, leaving behind a time bomb that forces the liner's occupants to evacuate. Discovering the case to be empty, Zorg returns to the ship and deactivates his bomb, but a dying Mangalore sets off his own device, destroying the ship and killing Zorg. Dallas, Cornelius, Leeloo, and talk-show host Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) escape with the stones aboard Zorg's spacecraft.

The four return to the weapon chamber at the Egyptian temple as the Great Evil approaches. They activate the stones, but Leeloo has become disenchanted with humanity and refuses to cooperate. Dallas confesses his love for Leeloo and kisses her. In response, Leeloo combines the power of the stones and releases the Divine Light; the Great Evil, now dormant, becomes another moon in Earth's orbit.

Earth scientists assure the president that the Great Evil is dead. Dallas and Leeloo are placed together in a healing tank to recuperate. When the President arrives and demands to see them, the scientists express reluctance, as Dallas and Leeloo have begun consummating their love.



In an interview Besson stated The Fifth Element was not a "big theme movie", although the film's theme was an important one. He wanted viewers to reach the point where Leeloo states "What's the use of saving life when you see what you do with it?", and agree with her.[11] One review stated the film relied on the broad themes of "human fallibility and perfection, evil, and the all-conquering power of love".[12] The film is also said to explore the theme of political corruption.[13]

In their book The Films of Luc Besson, Susan Hayward and Phil Bowrie consider The Fifth Element to be a classic story of a man "making his break from the tribe, proving his manhood, over-throwing the malevolent forces and killing the chief, finally to reap the rewards of security and marriage".[14] Korben's journey, however, is said to be under threat not only from the Mangalores and Zorg, but also from Leeloo, who only relents and helps him at the eleventh hour, accepting his declaration of love.[14] The love story within The Fifth Element was considered to be one of the main narratives in the film, and it faces the same deadline as the main storyline.[14] The authors also considered the issue of environmental damage to be a strong theme, as waste and pollution are visible throughout the film.[6][15] While science fiction films often show a world out of control after some new technology or threat either surpasses or fails humanity, The Films of Luc Besson included The Fifth Element amongst the minority of science fiction films that "hold up a mirror" and show humankind as responsible.[15] The film was said to be skeptical of capitalist consumerism; the gadgets in Zorg's office make his lust for technology look like a fetish.[15] The tension between technology and man is treated as a problem requiring a final resolution,[15] one that puts an end to the corrosive effects of cyberspace and advanced technology on modernism.[14]


Besson envisioned the entire world of The Fifth Element as a teenager, to alleviate boredom. He states he was waiting to build a reputation for himself as a filmmaker before he commenced production of the film, so that he would be able to make it with creative control.[11] The film was a French production,[16] and was the costliest European film ever made at the time of its release.[9] Investors were reportedly uninterested in financing the film when pre-production first commenced in the early '90s. Investor interest only came after Besson made the successful 1994 film, Léon: The Professional, after suspending pre-production of The Fifth Element.[3]

Besson met Bruce Willis a few years before production started and talked about the project, although he decided later to search for a relatively unknown young actor for the role of Korben instead, so as to spend less on actors and more on sets, costumes, and special effects. Willis approached Besson expressing continued interest in the film, and after Besson explained the issue, Willis responded "You know, Luc, if I like it, we will find a way." Willis made a deal with the production team for the role, a move which greatly pleased Besson.[11] Besson chose to hire Gary Oldman, who had starred in his previous film, Léon: The Professional, for the role of Zorg, describing Oldman as "one of the top five actors in the world".[11] For the character Leeloo, Besson chose Milla Jovovich from the 200 to 300 applicants he met in person.[11]

Milla has this physical thing, she can be from the past or the future. She can be an Egyptian or a Roman. She can be Nefertiti and she can be from outer space. That was one thing I liked physically about her.

—Luc Besson[11]

Besson was in a relationship with Maïwenn Le Besco, who played the role of Diva Plavalaguna, for six years when filming commenced; however, he left her for Jovovich during filming.[17] Jovovich and Besson later married, but divorced in 1999.[18]

Korben's flying taxicab, which was inspired by the comic The Circles of Power[19]

The production design for the film was developed by French comics creators Jean Giraud[20] and Jean-Claude Mézières.[21] Giraud and Mézières's comics were a major source of inspiration for Besson's futuristic New York City.[22] Mézières wrote the book The Circles of Power, which features a character named S'Traks, who drives a flying taxicab through the congested air traffic of the vast metropolis on the planet Rubanis.[23] Mézières sent a copy of the book to Besson, who was inspired to change the background of Korben Dallas from a worker in a rocketship factory to that of a taxi driver who flies his cab around a Rubanis-inspired futuristic New York.[19] The buildings in New York were derived from both metabolist-inspired masses of modular apartments from the 1960s, and the futuristic designs of architect Antonio Sant'Elia in the 1910s.[24] Besson demanded that most of the action shots in the film take place in broad daylight, as he was reportedly tired of the dark spaceship corridors and dimly lit planets common in science fiction films, and wanted a brighter "cheerfully crazy" look as opposed to a gloomy realistic one.[22] The costumes were designed by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.[25][26] Described as "intellectually transgressive",[27] Gaultier's designs were said to challenge sexuality and gender norms.[28] Gaultier also borrowed designs from others to help create his effect.[28]

The original name of the character Ruby Rhod was Loc Rhod. The name appears in both the original script and in the novelisation of the film.[29] Speculation has been raised that the name change was a play on information in the periodic table. Rubidium is the first of the Period 5 elements, and exactly halfway down that row is the element Rhodium. Taking the first half of each element yields "Rubi Rhod".[30]

The "Divine Language" spoken in the film is a fictional language with only 400 words, invented by Besson and Jovovich.[18] Jovovich stated that she and Besson wrote letters to each other in the Divine Language as practice.[31]


Special effects company Digital Domain was hired for the film, with Karen Goulekas given the role as digital effects supervisor.[32] Autodesk Softimage, Arete, Side Effect's Prisms, RenderMan, and proprietary software were used by Digital Domain to create effects.[33] Some individual shots used a combination of live action, scale models, computer-generated imagery and particle systems.[34] The lanes of traffic in the scenes in New York City were created with particle systems:

We had maybe 80 cityscape shots with CG cars hurtling around, and you couldn't animate them all by hand because there were just too many of them in each scene ... When the cars turned a corner, the velocity changes were automatic, so the animator didn't have to worry about that. They just planned the moves in a very blocky way, and the mathematics smoothed out the rest.

Amongst the scale models used for filming were the buildings seen in New York City. Dozens of apartment blocks and 25 skyscrapers, some 20 feet high, were constructed in 1/24th scale.[35] It took a team of 80 workers five months to build the models used in the film.[35] The windows of the buildings were cited by the team as one of the most time-consuming tasks, along with details behind the windows, such as furniture, blinds, lightboxes and tiny pieces of flat artwork.[35] Virtual sets built within digital environments were created to enhance the use of miniatures.[36] Motion control cameras moved throughout the scale sets, and the data they collected was exported to track and generate the CG animation and particle systems.[24] Other techniques used in the film included digital matte paintings for backgrounds[37] and the NURBS mathematical model for certain animations, including the sequence in which Leeloo's body is reconstructed.[38]


The Fifth Element: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by Éric Serra
Released6 May 1997
GenreFilm score
Éric Serra chronology
The Fifth Element
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic3/5 stars[39]
Filmtracks.com3/5 stars[40]

The film's score was composed by Éric Serra. He relies heavily on the use of orchestral textures and exotic influences, such as the oboe and strings heard as the surgeons prepare to regenerate Leeloo, and the pizzacato as she is reconstructed, as well as the shawm sounds as Leeloo tries to communicate with Korben after she falls into his taxi, and the Middle-Eastern unison strings as he tries to convince her to give herself up.[41] Other examples include the Stalinist fanfare heard before the spaceport sequence, the reggae piece played in preparation for the flight, and the hulu music that greets the passengers as they arrive in Fhloston.[41] More conventional scoring techniques are present in the leitmotif that first appears when professor Pacoli mentions the fifth element, the militaristic snares as the warship prepares to attack the dark planet, and the Mahlerian funereal piece heard when Leeloo learns about war.[41] Released as an album under Virgin Records, the soundtrack peaked at No. 99 on the Billboard 200.[42] More than 200,000 copies of the lengthy soundtrack (around 63 minutes) were sold in France alone.[43][44] The Fifth Element is amongst Besson's films that have been described as "intrinsically musical";[44] some kind of music is playing during about 90 per cent of the film.[45] The music used for the taxicab chase scene, titled "Alech Taadi" by Algerian performer Khaled,[46][47] is excluded from the film soundtrack, but available on Khaled's album N'ssi N'ssi.

The Diva Dance opera performance featured music from Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor: "Il dolce suono",[48] the mad scene of Act III, Scene 2. It is one of the few pieces of music in the film that is diegetic (presented with narration).[49] It was sung by Albanian soprano Inva Mula,[50] while the role of Plavalaguna was played by French actress Maïwenn Le Besco.[17] Part One (titled Lucia di Lammermoor) and Part Two (titled The Diva Dance) of this piece are included as separate but consecutive tracks on the soundtrack.


Initial screening[edit]

The film premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected as the opening film.[51] Gaumont built an area for the screening that was over 100,000 square feet 100,000 square feet (9,300 m2). Guests were given a "Fifth Element" Swatch, which was used as their ticket for entry. The event featured a futuristic ballet, a fashion show by Jean-Paul Gaultier, and fireworks. Gaumont spent between $1 million and $3 million on the event, a record at the time.[52]

Box office[edit]

The film debuted at No. 1 in the US, earning $17 million on its opening weekend.[16] It went on to become a box-office success, grossing over $263 million, almost three times its budget of $90 million.[7] Seventy-six per cent of the receipts for The Fifth Element were from markets outside the United States;[7] more than 7.69 million people went to see the film in France.[6] It was the ninth highest-grossing film of the year worldwide.[7] In Germany the film was awarded the Goldene Leinwand, a sales certification award for selling more than three million tickets at the box office,[53] and also a Bogey Award in Silver, which certifies two million people viewing a film within twenty days.[54] It went on to become the highest grossing French film at the box-office,[9] a record it held for 16 years until the release of The Intouchables in 2011.[10] As of 2011 it was still considered to be France's most successful exported film.[55]

Critical response and legacy[edit]

The Fifth Element holds a "fresh" 71 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 56 reviews, with the consensus described as: "Visually inventive and gleefully over the top, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element is a fantastic piece of pop sci-fi that never takes itself too seriously."[56] It has a weighted score of 52/100 at Metacritic based on 22 professional reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews."[57]

The Fifth Element polarised critics on release. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times described the film as an "elaborate, even campy sci-fi extravaganza, which is nearly as hard to follow as last year's Mission: Impossible." He concluded that The Fifth Element was "a lot warmer, more fun and boasts some of the most sophisticated, witty production and costume design you could ever hope to see."[58] On film review show At the Movies, both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the film a "thumbs up";[59] in his own review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert gave the film 3 stars out of 4, calling it "One of the great goofy movies", and concluding, "I would not have missed seeing this film, and I recommend it for its richness of imagery. But at 127 minutes, which seems a reasonable length, it plays long."[4]

The film was, however, subject to a number of harsh reviews that expressed disapproval of its overblown style. Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, "A largely misfired European attempt to make an American-style sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element consists of a hodgepodge of elements that don't comfortably coalesce."[60] David Edelstein of Slate was even more critical, saying, "It may or may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is one of the most unhinged."[5]

Chris Tucker's performance as Ruby Rhod also polarised critics.[61] He was praised in the Los Angeles Times[62] and in Time, which called him "the summer's most outrageous special effect",[63] though Josh Winning of Total Film singled out his performance as the low point of the film, ranking it as No. 20 on his 2011 list, "50 Performances That Ruined Movies".[64]

The film has been described in various publications as a science fiction cult classic,[25][65][66] but other comments have been sharply critical, including that Besson "should stay the hell away from sci-fi".[67] Film critic Mark Kermode reported that The Fifth Element was one of the most divisive films among his readers, regarded as both the best and the worst summer blockbuster of all time. Kermode recalled his own experience: "I remember very clearly being in Cannes when The Fifth Element was first played, and it really divided the audience."[68] Stephen Cass of Discover ranked the film the third-best science fiction movie on subscription service Hulu, writing, "People seem to either like or loathe The Fifth Element ... Lavish visuals and entertaining performances from Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, and Gary Oldman make this movie worth watching."[69] In some circles the film has gained a "so-bad-it's-good" status; Meredith Woerner of io9 listed The Fifth Element as one of "The 20 Best Worst Science Fiction Movies of All Time".[70] In 2007 the Visual Effects Society placed The Fifth Element at No. 50, tied with Darby O'Gill and the Little People, on their list of the 50 most influential visual effects films of all time.[71]

Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud sued Luc Besson after the film was released, claiming The Fifth Element had plagiarised their comic The Incal. Giraud sued for 13.1 million euros for unfair competition, 9 million euros in damages and interest and 2–5% of the net operating revenues of the film. Jodorowsky sued for 700,000 euros. The case was dismissed in 2004 on the grounds that only "tiny fragments" of Giraud's artwork had been used[72] and also due to the fact that Giraud had been hired by Besson to work on the film before the allegations were made.[20]

There were rumors after the film's release of a sequel in development, tentatively titled Mr. Shadow. In 2011, Besson stated that a sequel was never planned, and that he has no desire to make one.[73]


The Fifth Element was nominated for Best Sound Editing at the 70th Academy Awards,[74] and for Best Sound Editing at the 1998 Golden Reel Awards,[75] but lost to Titanic in both cases. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects,[76][77] and the Prix Lumière award for Best Director.[78] It was nominated for seven César awards[54][75] and won three for Best Director,[79] Best Cinematography,[80] and Best Production Design.[77] It was nominated for Film of the Year at the 1997 European Film Awards.[81] It was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation,[82] and for the Satellite Award for Best Visual Effects.[83] Thierry Arbogast was awarded the Technical Grand Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for his work on both The Fifth Element and She's So Lovely.[77] The film received four Saturn Award nominations: Best Science Fiction Film,[84] Best Costume,[85] Best Special Effects,[86] and Best Supporting Actress for Milla Jovovich.[87] Jovovich's fight against the Mangalores was nominated for the MTV Movie Award for Best Fight,[87][88] and she was also nominated for Best Actress – Newcomer at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards.[89]

Conversely, Jovovich received a Razzie nomination for Worst Supporting Actress, and Chris Tucker was nominated for Worst New Star for both The Fifth Element and Money Talks.[90]

1998Academy AwardsBest Sound EditingThe Fifth ElementNominated
1998Blockbuster Entertainment AwardsBest Actress – NewcomerMilla JovovichNominated
1997British Academy of Film and Television ArtsBest Special Visual EffectsMark A. ManginiWon
1997Cannes Film FestivalTechnical Grand PrizeThierry ArbogastWon
1998César AwardBest CinematographyThierry ArbogastWon
Best DirectorLuc BessonWon
Best Production DesignDan WeilWon
Best Costume DesignJean-Paul GaultierNominated
Best EditingSylvie LandraNominated
Best FilmLuc BessonNominated
Best Music Written for a FilmEric SerraNominated
Best SoundDaniel BrisseauNominated
1997European Film AwardsFilm of the YearPatrice LedouxNominated
1998Golden Raspberry AwardsWorst Supporting ActressMilla JovovichNominated
Worst New StarChris TuckerNominated
1998Golden Reel AwardsBest Sound EditingSound editing teamNominated
1998Hugo AwardsBest Dramatic PresentationThe Fifth ElementNominated
1998MTV Movie AwardsBest FightMilla Jovovich vs. AliensNominated
1997Prix LumièreBest DirectorLuc BessonWon
1998Satellite AwardBest Visual EffectsMark StetsonNominated
1998Saturn AwardBest Science Fiction FilmThe Fifth ElementNominated
Best CostumesJean-Paul GaultierNominated
Best Special EffectsSpecial effects teamNominated
Best Supporting ActressMilla JovovichNominated

Home media [edit]

The original home video release of The Fifth Element took place in North America on 10 December 1997, on VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD.[91] The original DVD was in its original 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen format, had English and Spanish audio and subtitling, and carried no special features.

The film was released in Sony's Superbit format[92] on 9 October 2001.[2] In their review, IGN gave the DVD release 9 out of 10, and awarded the Superbit version a perfect score, noting the enhanced quality of the Superbit format.[92] The Superbit release was presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 format, used a higher data rate for a better picture, and featured subtitling in six languages (English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai) but only English audio[2] and no special features.[92]

An "Ultimate Edition" set of two DVDs was released on 11 January 2005.[91][93] The first contained the Superbit quality version of the film along with subtitles in the same six languages. The only difference between the Superbit version and the Ultimate Edition disc one is the addition of a "fact track", which when turned on displays trivia about the film, cast and crew as the film plays. The second disc provides various special features, focusing on visual production, special effects, fashion in the film, featurettes and interviews with Willis, Jovovich, and Tucker, featurettes on the four different alien races in the film, and a featurette on Diva Plavalaguna. The Ultimate Edition was praised for its special features.[3][93]

The first Blu-ray Disc release of the film on 20 June 2006 was criticised as having poor picture quality by Blu-ray standards, and for its lack of special features.[94] In what has been called "an extremely rare move", Sony responded to complaints by making a remastered Blu-ray version available, released on 17 July 2007, and also offered a replacement exchange program for customers unhappy with the original Blu-ray release.[95] stated the remastered version "absolutely" made up for the lacklustre initial release, praising its high video and audio quality, yet still criticising its lack of special features.[94]

Related media[edit]

A novel adaptation by Terry Bisson was published by HarperPrism in 1997.[96][97]

A video game adaptation of the same name was created by Activision for the PlayStation game console and PC in 1998. It generally met with negative reviews.[98] A racing game based on the film, New York Race, was released in 2001.[99]



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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]