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I’m a big fan of director Luc Besson’s Leon (also known as The Professional), but when it comes to his 1997 sci-fi epic The Fifth Element I’m not quite as sure in my opinion. I have watched the original UK release only once since buying it, primarily because it had a particularly nasty layer change that caused the disc to jump forward on my old player. The disc also came under fire for having a less than perfect picture (especially when compared to the region one release). When the shiny new Special Edition dropped through my letterbox, courtesy of Pathe, I decided to revisit the film to see if they have improved upon the original.

Fifth Element: Special Edition, The
It is the year 2257, and a planet-sized sphere of ultimate evil is heading straight to Earth with the intention of wiping out every living creature on the planet. The only hope for the future rests with Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), an ex-military man who now makes a miserable living as a cab driver, priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), and a mysterious young woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich).

Charged with the task of recovering four sacred stones – representing the elements of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water (there’s a disco group in there somewhere) - from a stunning Diva on the beautiful planet of Fhloston, Korben must face many challenges along the way. The agents of evil, led by the despicable Zorg (Gary Oldman), are also searching for the stones, and they will stop at nothing to achieve their objective.

To compliment the superb performances from the principal cast (especially Jovovich), the film features supporting roles for Chris Tucker, as the outrageous DJ Ruby Rhod, Lee Evens as a bumbling concierge (surely not) and ‘trip-hop’ star Tricky, complete with his thick Knowle-West accent, and even a cameo from ex-90210 star Luke Perry.

The imaginative plot is brought to life with astounding attention to detail, with everything from the sprawling metropolis of the future, to the most intricate details of the costumes given the utmost care. The visual brilliance of the film is complimented by a fantastic score from Eric Serra, and the film is packed full of enough drama and action to satisfy fans in both camps. Thankfully the film also retains a sense of humour, with some nice sight gags and one-liners punctuating the proceedings. There’s even a romantic subplot to round things off nicely.

With all of the above said, I find it understandable that some people just don’t get on with the film. It’s very unorthodox in its approach to the genre, and is full of, for want of a better word, eccentric performances. This is exemplified in Chris Tucker’s character Ruby Rhod, who seems to split audiences down the middle (at least if my friends are anything to go by). However much people may dislike Mr. Tucker, there’s no denying that he adds a certain ‘something’ to the show!
Fifth Element: Special Edition, The
A visually stunning film such as The Fifth Element deserves only the best DVD transfer, and while the original disc received some good reviews on its release, subsequent reviews have highlighted a number of problems with the disc. The much-maligned lack of detail, coupled with the unnatural representation of colours, has been the topic of discussion in many newsgroup threads. Obviously I was hoping for better things from this release, especially considering the bulk of the extras reside on the second disc.

On the whole the video is good, but as with the previous release there are one or two things preventing greatness. At first glance this transfer seems identical to the previous one, but after close examination it seems that there is at least one very subtle difference: the contrast. It appears that contrast has been bumped up ever so slightly from the previous release, the result of which is a loss of some of the finer detail in the image. This is especially apparent from the markings on the temple wall during the scenes in Egypt.

Colours are strong, perhaps a little too strong. I found the palette to be over-saturated, with many of the earthy tones taking on a freaky ‘yellowish’ appearance (which looks downright odd when compared to the region one discs) Black levels are also off on occasion, with some of the darker scenes looking a little too grey for my liking (back to the contrast issues again). One of the most disappointing aspects for me was the presence of a fair amount of dirt on the print. This was also present on the original release, which further strengthens my belief that very little was done to try and improve upon that transfer. Edge enhancement also rears its ugly head, but it’s no worse than the previous release and isn’t particularly distracting on a 32” screen. However, the region one, and possibly the region three, Superbit releases appear to have less edge enhancement applied.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a terrible transfer, because it’s not. It’s just that I’ve come to expect a lot from my discs, and I demand far more from a release purporting to be a ‘Special Edition’. While this transfer is adequate, it’s clearly inferior to the region one and region three releases, both standard and Superbit.

While The Fifth Element’s visuals were slightly disappointing, the same criticism cannot be levelled at the aural side of things. With both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks, the latter of which comes in the 1536Kbps flavour, listeners are in for a real treat. Although I have both Dolby and DTS capability, for the purposes of this review I chose to listen to the DTS effort.

Fifth Element: Special Edition, The
The problem with many action movies is that the dialogue often gets lost amidst the cacophony of sound. Thankfully, when it come to this release of The Fifth Element, dialogue is perfectly clear throughout. However, it will be the thunderous bass, discrete surround effects and superb score that will grab the attention of the viewers. From the very beginning the sub will have your ornaments rattling, especially during the opening scenes with the landing of the Mondoshawan spacecraft and the ferocious Mangalore attack. The surrounds are in almost constant use during this part of the film, be it for subtle (and not so subtle) effects, or the remarkable score by Eric Serra. Serra’s Leon score is one of my favourites, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. I defy anyone not to fall in love with the music of The Fifth Element, especially the hauntingly magnificent ‘Diva Dance’.

All in all this is one of the better tracks I’ve heard in recent times. While it can’t compete with the very best it’s a close run thing, and The Fifth Element gets top marks for effort in my book. In the face of some very stiff competition I was split as to whether to award this track an eight or a nine, but after careful deliberation I feel that the latter is warranted. Although it’s not quite up there with the likes of Attack of the Clones as a reference quality soundtrack, it is still very, very good.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the menus on the first disc, as they are genuinely innovative in their design. Just as in the movie, an animated taxi flies down through a seemingly never-ending stream of traffic, with the various menu options zooming past at high speed. To select the desired menu option you have to press the enter button on your remote at the right time, which executes the option. The only problem with this is that it’s easy to miss the option you want, forcing you to wait until the cycle resets. Frustrating. Disc two features a more conventional menu, but this is still themed and nicely animated.

The sole extra to be found on disc one is the feature length visual effects commentary from Mark Stetson, Karen E. Goulekas, Bill Neil and Ron Gress. It’s disappointing that director Besson was not involved in the commentary track, but those who are do supply an interesting number of anecdotes.

Moving on to disc two, we come to the real meat of the extras. First up we have a forty-eight minute documentary entitled 'Discovering the Fifth Element'. The documentary itself is divided into distinct elements—script, design, production and visual fx—and is packed full of interesting information. Featuring interviews with the entire principal cast, director Besson, designers, artists, special effects wizards and more, the documentary is definitely one of the most enjoyable I’ve watched in a long while.

Fifth Element: Special Edition, The
'Imagining the Fifth Element' is a short (five minute) piece on the design of the special effects. As with some of the other features, this item includes interviews with Mark Stetson, Sarah Bradshaw, Nick Dudman and Jean-Claude Mezieres. Unfortunately there’s very little here that isn’t covered in the more in-depth documentaries, making this featurette a little redundant.

'The Art of Jean-Claude Mezieres' features the conceptual artist as he takes us on a five-minute tour of the world he created for the film. It was interesting to see how he incorporated elements of the New York of today into the incredibly futuristic version seen in the completed movie, and it’s amazing just how closely they stuck to his original ideas throughout the show.

The five-minute long 'An Audience with Diva Plavalaguna' examines the scene in which the Diva wows the audience at Fhloston Paradise. The featurette shows how the design of Plavalaguna evolved, and reveals how the incredible vocal effects were achieved.

'Elements of Style' is another short featurette, this time concentrating on the fabulous costumes created for the film. It includes interviews with both the principal cast and Jean-Paul Gotier himself, and I found this to be relatively informative for what it is.

The obligatory trailers and TV spots follow, with three trailers for the main feature and a couple of the public service announcements and advertisements (these seem to be getting more and more common on region one discs).

The 'Cannes Opening Night Party' is the second of the two lengthy documentaries on the disc. Hosted by MTV’s Toby Amies and Carolyn Lilipaly, the documentary takes the viewer behind the scenes at the party and includes interviews with attending stars, such as Denis Hopper. Approximately half of the forty-six minute runtime is comprised of behind the scenes interviews, with the other half devoted to musical performance from Neneh Cherry. Not bad if you’re into her music, but death if you aren’t. I quite enjoyed this feature, even though I have what some might call an 'irrational' hatred of Toby Amies (I think it’s perfectly rational).

Fifth Element: Special Edition, The

'Print' is merely a series of still images, mostly consisting of poster artwork and conceptual designs. All in all there are only around a dozen pages, so it’s nothing to get too worked up over.

Finally we come to 'The Sixth Element Essay', which is a short piece on Luc Besson’s original story idea and the possibility of a sequel, entitled ‘Mr. Shadow’. I’d pay to see that.

This release of The Fifth Element has allowed me to rediscover the film, and given me a greater appreciation of this often overlooked gem (I’m as guilty as anyone). While I was somewhat disappointed with the video transfer, the excellent audio and solid extras go a long way to compensating (although some deleted scenes would have been nice). Presentation is also excellent, with some particularly impressive packaging giving that quality ‘feel’ to the set. For fans of the film crying out for a decent set of extras I have no reservations in recommending this package. However, those of you not too concerned with supplements might want to go for one of the Superbit releases for the improved picture quality and unaltered soundtrack. The choice, as they say, is yours…