Plot: What’s it about?
This is an 80’s movie. Sure, I know it technically came out in 1997, but can you think of any film off the top of your head that’s as spastically neurotic as this one from start to finish? Can you think of any film that took as many visual, storytelling, and creative risks for the time? There are so many films in the 1980’s that did this and did it well, creating a real sense of individuality between movies that we just don’t get very often these days. It’s like comparing 80’s music to 90’s music. Whatever else is said about the 1980’s, it was a decade of excess and uniqueness. You knew precisely what song you were listening to from the first note. Once the 90’s rolled around, that all changed. We have so many interchangeable opening strains today that it’s taken nearly all the joy out of listening to the radio. And that’s a shame, because it used to be a fun thing to do. And so did watching movies. Before the big budget, big CGI, big spectacle, big nothing films started to emerge and meld into one another like a bunch of songs that could have all been written by the same mediocre artist. Now, don’t get me wrong, “The Fifth Element” is definitely a “spectacle” film with plenty of CGI and a whole heap of emptiness filling up it’s ridiculously thin, 126-minute narrative. So what sets this genre film apart from all the others like it? For one, it dares to be a genreless genre film almost to a fault.
“The Fifth Element” is a comedy, a love story, a sci-fi epic, and an action film. It’s also an undefinable melting pot of cinematic ideas that keeps the film from fitting into any of these categories snugly, and I love that. There’s something here for everyone, and yet there’s also – almost unavoidably – a few things that not everyone will like. It’s a movie you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy watching, but even if you swallow it entirely, there’s guaranteed to be about 10% of it that you could trim out for yourself and enjoy it even more. Personally, I think director Luc Besson is to be commended for trying absolutely everything and making it work this well for two hours. I’m not sure a movie like this could be made again with even half of the satisfying results. This may sound like an odd comparison, but the movie that comes to mind right now is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. It’s quirky, disjointed, off-the-wall, and there’s absolutely no logical reason why any of it should work at all…but it somehow does. And it works every single time you watch it. I’d put “The Fifth Element” in this category, although it’s admittedly a completely different kind of movie. It tries to do it all and doesn’t spare taking a single risk to get there. While there are some films I could summarize quickly, the synopsis for this one is so all over the place that it would take the entirety of the story portion of this review to lay it all out for you. Here’s an attempt to be concise.
A huge ball of fire is hurtling toward Earth. It’s pure evil and it wants to extinguish every form of life. The only thing that can stop it is the fifth element. The fifth element is a girl reconstructed out of the only remaining appendage of an alien that was onboard a ship that was ambushed and destroyed on its way to save Earth. The aliens that attacked that ship were sent by a man named Zorg who wants to attain four stones for the ball of fire. The stones are needed so the fifth element can perform her function and save the world. The only people who know all of this are a priest, a cab driver, and a zany radio host named Ruby Rod who redefines flamboyant flare for a generation. If that makes no sense not having seen the film, rest assured that it makes precious little more sense once you have. That’s not to say that it’s not wholly entertaining. It’s just odd is all. Then again, normality has never been a prerequisite for me to enjoy a movie. In fact, it’s usually quite the contrary. “The Fifth Element” isn’t going to appeal to anyone who hates science fiction. The world it creates is just too “out there” for those viewers. On the other hand, it’s just about impossible for it not to please just about everyone else on at least some small level. It’s audacious, colorful and inexplicably fun to watch again and again. And there’s also something about it that’s strangely endearing even through its frequently cheesy tone. See, I told you this was an 80’s movie.
Video: How does it look?
Now that’s more like it! The new AVC MPEG-4 1080p transfer for “The Fifth Element” looks pretty fantastic. This isn’t the best image I’ve ever seen on Blu-ray, but it would probably be unrealistic to expect it to be. One thing that standard DVD had going for it was that, at the time, it could make nearly any movie look good. The limits of 480p resolution were only ever going to expose so much to the naked eye on a display that didn’t offer more than 480p to begin with. That said, I remember the original DVD release of “The Fifth Element” looking just amazing back when it was first released. Then, the Superbit version came along which took it up another step to become the demo disc of choice for the SD format for years. My, how times have changed since then. The home theater enthusiasts of today are watching movies on screens capable of exposing elements of a transfer that simply weren’t possible to see even a few years ago. What once looked “smooth” now looks “soft”, and specks of dirt or debris that weren’t even noticeable in the SD era are now clearly visible and distracting. Who knows how amazing – or average – that Superbit disc really was underneath all the license that SD afforded it. Regardless, the initial Blu-ray release was, to say the very least, a huge disappointment. The transfer looked murky and dull, with washed-out colors and a veil of grey over the proceedings. Detail was especially lacking, with compression errors and debris mucking up the picture as well. As such, the original disc was a virtual “how not to” of HD transfers. Now, granted, the release was still the best the film had ever looked at home, but taking into account the fact that the disc was intended to be seen at full 1080p resolution, it just didn’t measure up. Sony has rectified the situation with this re-release (free through a mail-in exchange program for those who purchased the previous Blu-ray edition), and it’s a vast improvement in just about every way imaginable. Gone is the grey veil and softness of the previous release, along with 99.9% of the dirt and debris. Sharpness and detail are thankfully tremendous this time around. I could literally make out each individual hair on Bruce Willis’s face stubble (I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or not). There’s a fair amount of film grain present in the image throughout, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is an aspect that’s inherent to the source print and not a flaw in the Blu-ray transfer itself. Colors are vibrant and robust, rivaling almost any other Blu-ray I have watched (aside from the Pirates films). Also, compression is far better this time out, no doubt the result of both the AVC MPEG-4 codec upgrade (the original disc was MPEG-2) and the extra storage capacity of the now-employed BD-50 dual-layer disc. Whatever the reason, “The Fifth Element” now looks the way I remember it looking back when I got that original DVD release. It looks the way I remember the Superbit looking when I first bought that. And now it looks that way blown up to 1080p hanging on my wall. It looks as great today with my being spoiled by the ultra-clarity of HD as it did in 1997 when I didn’t know any better. I can’t think of anything that’s a greater testimony to the power of HD image quality than its ability to transport us back to a time when we just looked at something and said “that looks amazing” and put our focus on the film in front of us instead of scouring the screen for flaws in the presentation. For the record, I think the advent of HD entertainment has created online reviewers more interested in being the proverbial hawks of the digital realm than telling their readers what they really want to know: does it look good or not? I’ve read another review of this disc online that complains about subtle edge enhancement that becomes visible when projected up on an eight-foot wide screen in a few, high-contrast shots. Maybe it’s there, maybe it isn’t, and I don’t have the eight-foot wide screen necessary to find out. But I do know I can count Bruce Willis’s face stubble. I’m sold.
Audio: How does it sound?
Those who bought the previous Blu-ray edition of “The Fifth Element” will know more or less what to expect in the audio department. The same options from the older release have been ported over this time out, and no matter which track you choose to listen to, the film sounds incredible. A new Dolby TrueHD track has also been included at a slightly higher bitrate than the uncompressed PCM track (though with levels of transparency as this, it would admittedly take a more hardcore audiophile than myself to distinguish between the two). Needless to say, so much of this film takes place in completely alien worlds and environments that the soundtrack is more alive with nuances and quirks than in your average movie. It’s the “Toy Story” equivalent of live-action, and the results are incredibly enveloping and spacious. I’ve always been more than impressed with how “The Fifth Element” sounded at home, and this release is no exception. I can’t imagine anyone will be disappointed by the audio presentation which, coupled with the stellar video transfer, rounds out the best looking and sounding Fifth Element release that we’re ever likely to see.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Sadly, the only extra included on this re-release is the same “fact track” feature that accompanied the film’s first Blu-ray outing. Then again, fans of the film undoubtedly have at least ONE of the many SD incarnations of “The Fifth Element” by now, and seeing as the presentation of the movie itself is the big selling point here, I honestly have to commend Sony for making sure they used the entirety of the disc to get this one right. Extras would have been nice, but I’ll take video and audio quality like this over a few featurettes any day of the week. Those who disagree are more than welcome to buy the SD Special Edition release to get their bonus features fix while the rest of us drool over fine picture details. Thermal bandages are just so unnecessary, especially in an HD world. Can I get an amen?