The Fifth Element is a comedy based on symbolism
There are a lot of comedy and sci-fi movies out there, but I can’t think of one that tried to combine those two elements in order to make fun of symbolism. There is more symbolism in this movie than in 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010 combined, and they build on one another, like a comedy builds toward a joke, and all of them express the duality inherent in the story.
Most of this movie is setup as a running joke. Gary Oldman’s hair aside, his over-the-top performance might be one example of this movie trying to find comedy in its context. There are plenty of other examples of humor in this movie, and it uses science symbols, religious metaphors, and astrology to make the jokes more outlandish and funny. I think this is also why the movie bombed in the USA, because the comedy is really out-there and I myself didn’t find it all that humorous. It’s not Blade Runner, but it’s not meant to be, even though I hear it compared to Blade Runner all the time.
Most of the movie pokes fun at sci-fi cliches and overdoes a lot of them for comedic effect. The futuristic hairstyles, clothes, oversized aliens are meant to be goofy. The movie takes its content even further, by throwing in every symbol you can think of to create some more comedic situations. Most of the symbols themselves are from a variety of sources, like the 19th century Freemasons or Catholicism.
What is the fifth element? This is the biggest joke of the whole movie. It’s not that big a reveal really, since they explain it early on. According to Plato, the fifth element is the quintessence, an abstract concept not easily described. Maybe that’s why it’s supposed to be funny.
Colonel Musgrove: Now, what’s that supposed to be coming out of there?
Indiana: Lightning. Fire. The power of God or something.
Taken more literally, the characters “think” the fifth element is the power of God “or something”. Dallas thinks that’s what God’s prophet is here to release, in order to destroy the Great Evil. The cliche names are meant to poke fun at sci-fi, but that’s just a bonus. The biggest joke is the fifth element.
The movie uses a lot of duality. The first time comes early on in the movie as some archaeologists try to uncover just what the fifth element is. A bearded man describes some hieroglyphs carved into a wall, and another holds up a vial of water in deep contemplation of what it all means. This is cleverly disguised duality meant to fool us into thinking the water represents God, as in Holy Water, when it is really just poison. The bearded guy pours it into his pal’s cup and the camera watches closely as he teases drinking it over and over. Hilarious.
The second joke is that most of the mysticism and power left behind on Earth is under some sort of rental agreement with a bunch of oversized, goofy aliens. These guys void the contract and try to reclaim the power of God, like it’s a used car. Hilarious. There’s a few cliches, symbols, and a bad omen thrown in for good measure. And that’s just the introduction.
Bruce Willis plays Dallas with that dry wit he’s used in every other movie he’s been in. He plays it mostly straight, like a Western hero. He lives in a advanced but familiar apartment, and the movie plays with technology jokes, like Back the Future part 2 did. His dwelling is also inspired by baroque art and the designs of Jean Giraud, who worked on the film.
Jean Giraud was a French artist known for his outlandish style, like in the magazine Heavy Metal. This movie is based on this kind of lavish style. I think the movie uses and overuses his designs, throwing endless color and shapes at the viewer. Giraud once drew a Silver Surfer comic, and I can see why. His art has distinctive elements of distopias and spiritualism, which fits well with the movie.
There are elements of transformation, as characters and symbols become other things. The most obvious example of this is the birthing of LeeLoo, as she becomes the embodiment of God’s power. She literally represents the prophecy as explained in the movie, but also symbolizes innocence and love, which is expressed at the end, when she and Dallas use some facetime to destroy evil, so to speak. So really, the movie’s ending has a laugh on us, because we thought the fifth element was some Universal nuke or something. It’s really love. The fifth element is love. Ha ha. They got us.
Overall, this is an overly complicated movie, filled with endless symbols and metaphors, which try to guide the comedy and telegraph the jokes. It mostly doesn’t work because it’s just too deep and too outlandish. The genre and the content is also hard to place into a single category, so movie theatres were filled with a lot of confused audience members. I can remember this movie making money, but it made most of it outside of the USA. I’m not sure if that’s surprising or not. Mostly, this movie doesn’t deserve comparisons to Blade Runner or anything else, because it stands on its own as a unique vision. It is still remembered today by those who love sci-fi and action, as well as those who like to contemplate enigmatic symbols.