The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition

New and original sci-fi movies are getting hard to come by. Even harder is finding sci-fi films that incorporate a nice balance of comedy, drama and romance into their standard action fare. We find ourselves in a time when George Lucas’ is doing his best to degrade the genre by completely reversing the quality story telling of his Star Wars saga. Meanwhile, the Star Trek movie franchise has been sucked into a black hole with its last two installments being utter insults to the name Enterprise and all those who have crewed her. In such dire times we must turn to the classics for that oh so espresso-like shot of real sci-fi adrenaline pleasure. The Fifth Element’s recent Ultimate Edition DVD release is just such a serving of cinematic comfort food…and it’s been dished out without any crazy alterations, re-writes, or re-edits. Hey LUCAS! You taking notes?! Every 5000 years a rare triple eclipse occurs somewhere in the galaxy and an ancient and absolute evil is reborn (now that’s good sci-fi, right there!). After taking form as a planet-like orb of flame and shadow, it begins a two-day journey towards Earth where it will seek to destroy all life and turn all light into darkness. The last time this event occurred was sometime in the century 2700 B.C. At that time, the races of the galaxy came together to create an ultimate weapon to defeat that evil: four powerful stones embodying the four elements of fire, wind, earth and water. When these four stones are gathered at a magic nexus (conveniently located in the mysterious Egyptian desert) they emit a light capable of destroying the ultimate evil…but only when channeled through a mysterious, perfect being: the bearer of the Fifth Element.

It’s now the 23rd century A.D., the rare triple eclipse is happening again, and Earth is now a very different place. One thing has not changed. A small and secret order of priests still exists, carrying on a 5000-year-old mission of vigilance and preparation. The current head priest is one Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm). When an alien ship transporting the four stones and the fifth element from their secret location of safekeeping is hijacked and destroyed, Cornelius and Earth’s government believe all is lost. Things take a miraculous turn for the better when the bearer of the Fifth Element, a perfect being named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), suddenly turns up alive at Cornelius’ apartment in the arms of ex-military-specials-ops-agent-turned-NYC-taxi-cab-driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis).

Leeloo bears knowledge that the stones were not destroyed after all, but she knows where are and they must be collected quickly. An evil businessman named Jean Emmanuel Baptiste Zorg (Gary Oldman) is also out to find the stones and he’ll stop at nothing to get them. Dallas, Leeloo and Cornelius set out in a high stakes race to find the stones and get them to the nexus in time to save Earth from the ultimate evil, along the way discovering the true nature and purpose of the mysterious Fifth Element.

Luc Besson, the prolific French writer/producer rarely steps to the helm as director of his own movies, but when he does, his eclectic style and originality bring the story to life in unique and thrilling ways. Granted his last directorial project The Messenger was more obscenely disturbing than thrilling, and his current project, an animated piece voiced by Madonna, Snoop Dogg and David Bowie, is hard to get excited about. Nevertheless, with past successes like the European cult classic The Femme Nikita and The Professional, the film that launched Natalie Portman’s career, its no wonder that his writing and directing skills have produced one of sci-fi’s greatest masterpieces.

Every cinematic ingredient of the Fifth Element is honed to perfection. The visual effects are stunning. Based on the designs of two of Frances most famous graphic novel artists, the worlds and characters of the film are so intricately detailed and beautifully brought to life that they stand up to anything being produced today, nearly ten years later. One of the movie’s centerpieces, a futuristic opera performance given by the enigmatic Diva Plavalaguna, is so incredible it has achieved a well-deserved position of immortality in the realm of sci-fi filmmaking.

The acting in the film is, in a word, excellent. Despite coming from completely different backgrounds (Milla from modeling, Ian and Gary from classical training, Bruce from action movies, and Chris Tucker from…well…wherever the heck he comes from) the cast meshes perfectly, creating an ensemble that rivals Luke, Leia, Chewie and Han. Even Luke Perry manages to give a believable performance, one that somehow earned him a coveted spot in the opening credits despite only being on screen for the movie’s first ten minutes (ah the joys of being a “90210” star in the nineties).

Equally stunning is the film’s unique soundtrack, created by the clever and creative Eric Serra. It’s a masterpiece unto itself, adding the perfect final sonic touch to the film’s quirky locations and situations. For all his genius, even John Williams couldn’t have captured the essence of this story in sound better than Serra.

Though I’ve spent this entire review comparing The Fifth Element to other great films, it is a work of genius that stands out in its own right. Bursting with originality and good old-fashioned sci-fi fun, it’s a must see film that will enchant lovers and haters of the genre alike. If you’re going to label a DVD release as being “Ultimate”, you’d darn well better put together an impressive package. The Fifth Element - Ultimate Edition is a two disc set that makes a note-worthy effort, but still fails to make an impact in some very important ways, not the least of which is the creepy cover art…but let’s start with the good stuff.

The Fifth Element set a new bar in visual effects and its design is a masterpiece of art unto itself. The film received a beautiful, high-definition digital remastering that brings all that visual wizardry to vibrant life on screen. It’s a well-deserved rendering that’ll leave you wanting more.

The movie was a hit internationally so it’s only right that the disc should make the film as accessible as possible to its entire fan base. While there are no language dubs, the subtitles for the film are available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Thai, and Chinese (Traditional). The available language subtitles for the bonus featurettes are not quite so exhaustive, providing only Spanish and Portuguese (hard of hearing English speakers are out of luck).

A fun bonus feature is a trivia track that throws tidbits about the actors, the filming, and the characters up on the screen as the movie plays. If you love knowing all kinds of weird and wonderful facts (including where to pause the movie to catch little flubs) you’ll undoubtedly wet yourself with joy over this bonus bit. The trivia comes fast and furious, often barely giving you time to read it before moving on to the next fact. It calls for a second viewing, once with the track, and once without, just to take it all in.

The second disc is pure bonus features with cleverly designed featurettes broken down into, what else, five elements: The Alien Element, The Visual Element, The Star Element, The Fashion Element, and The Digital Element. Each featurette (or series of featurettes) explores some aspect of the film in detail, complete with screen tests, and outtakes (not the humorous kind, unfortunately). Round out those featurettes with a slightly self-serving specialty feature covering the Diva and you’ve got over two hours of bonus material goodness.

Mysteriously absent from the entire DVD package is the film’s director, Luc Besson. He’s nowhere to be found in any of the bonus features and he doesn’t provide any kind of a commentary track to the film. I usually don’t care for director commentaries, but this is one I would have liked to hear. Is he snubbing his fans or is he simply a strange fellow with serious camera shyness? It doesn’t matter. He should have made some kind of appearance, and his absence leads me to balk slightly at the moniker, “Ultimate Edition”.

Speaking of commentaries…there are none. No Bruce, no Gary, no Luc, no nothing. One might argue that the film needs no such background noise, but I for one would like to hear some banter from the folks that created the film, even if their recollections are over a decade old. I’ve also recently begun a campaign to make isolated score tracks mandatory on all DVD packages bearing the title of ultimate, platinum, (insert other silly adjective here), and collector’s edition. Eric Serra’s genius deserves that kind of attention on this disc, but receives none…not even it’s own bonus featurette.

Despite its few flaws, this is still a fun DVD package that, for the most part, does justice to the movie’s creative originality. I’ll be very angry indeed if the Supreme Edition rolls onto shelves in the next few years, complete with all the things this version is lacking. Until then, this is the definitive way to view one of sci-fi’s most brilliant cinematic gems.