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Before director Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional impressed fans and critics around the world, he was hard at work at a then untitled science fiction film, now known as The Fifth Element. After breaking into the mainstream Hollywood industry in his aforementioned film, he had the opportunity to see his futuristic film see realization on the big screen. Released in 1997 The Fifth Element didn’t exactly impress at the box office, making back roughly seventy million of its ninety million dollar budget. Despite that lack of financial success, the film has gone on to be a cult classic and was released on DVD in the same year of the theatrical release. After only granting a bare bones release, Columbia Tri-Star has now released an Ultimate Edition in region one with a wealth of extras.

Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition, The
Film
The movie takes place in the twenty-third century on planet Earth, where the world is facing utter doom and complete destruction from an Evil that appears every five thousand years. Legend has it that only a magical force can thwart the Evil from annihilating the planet: four stones representing air, fire, earth, and water, and a supreme life form known as the fifth element. Together they create the ultimate weapon, which is the only defence that can defeat the insurmountable attack. The problem of course is finding these five elements and placing them together.

Priest Vito Cornelius (played by Bilbo Baggins himself, Ian Holm) is the leading expert on the legend of the five elements, and seeks to find the fifth element. The Supreme Being is discovered to be embodied in an exotic woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich of Resident Evil fame). After being resurrected and escaping her cocoon of sorts, she escapes into the bustling future New York City. This represents one of the first eye-popping moments of the film in terms of special effects. It is very similar to the look of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels, except it’s an aged New York; the buildings dwarf modern day sky scrappers, and transit vehicles are now airborne. In her attempt to flee capture Leeloo finds herself inside the cab of Korben Dallas (played by the infamous Bruce Willis). Together they embark on a wild chase through the skies of New York evading the police, and eventually find themselves at the door of Cornelius.

Of course the film has to have an antagonist in addition to the massive ball of Evil heading towards Earth, and it is personified in the character Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (played by veteran actor Gary Oldman, who also appeared in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional). The cowboy-esk Zorg and his gang of aliens known as the Mangalores were summoned by the Evil to destroy the stones and the fifth element. The pursuit for the stones leads our heros and villains to a fantastic resort known as Fhloston Paradise (lost in paradise, get it?) There we are treated to more scenes of the glamorous universe Besson has created for us, including an unforgettable sequence at the opera. The film essentially from the halfway point onward focuses on the heroes and villains attempting to capture and maintain control of all five elements, resulting in exceptional action sequences and intriguing visual effects.

Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition, The
The casting and acting was spot on from top to bottom in this film, starting with the dashing Korben Dallas. Bruce Willis is very likeable in his role as a swash-buckler here and takes some cues from another renowned science fiction character, Han Solo. Ian Holm is completely charming in his role and very easy too root for, which in turn adds to the element of suspense as the picture wears on. Unfortunately Gary Oldman doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as his character had a lot of promise, particularly in the way he portrays him. I was surprised at how much I loved Chris Tucker as the DJ; he was over the top, but not to the point at which it lost taste. Finally, Leeloo is a very sympathetic character which Jovovich is very good at portraying through her innocent glances and nervous body language (at least in the beginning).

In addition to the look of New York City, the set design of The Fifth Element is very similar to that of the interior capital in the Star Wars prequels as well; this is really only evident on the Fhloston Paradise location. The set design throughout the film (in addition to creature design) is generally impressive and adds to the rich culture of the world created. The visual effects done for the film (produced by James Cameron’s Digital Domain) are generally very good, with the exception of a few cartoonish and jerky shots. Special effects scattered about in the film make The Fifth Element a benchmark achievement in film making.

Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition, The
I found the plot of The Fifth Element to be extremely complicated in regards to the story setup. It took me two viewings of the film to feel as though I had a firm grasp as to what the core of the plot was, and even still I feel shaky on it. Underneath that issue, director Luc Besson has created a spectacular world of the future in his film.  What separates his movie from other second tier science fiction films are the little nuances that help make his world feel like an authentic twenty third century location. The take-out that Korben orders comes from a man in a bodega that literally flies to his apartment to make his food. The Diva performing her operatic song in front of a magnificent planet is among the most memorable scenes of the film, and gives the movie a semi-relatable situation. Blade Runner and Minority Report were very effective at doing this as well, with The Fifth Element being successful at it as well. Its appeal will exist with some casual movie fans, but it will be most appreciated by those who are science fiction fans. I found this film to work on some levels and felt let down that the plot had set up this wonderful mythology of the five elements, but didn't spend enough time fleshing it out. A warning to parents: this is another example of a poor rating by the MPAA. There is nudity and a fairly graphic sex scene which together should have constituted an R rating for the film.

Video
Shot initially in 35 mm and now presented in a 2:35:1 Superbit transfer, the video quality on this release is excellent. The colours are vibrant without signs of saturation. Thankfully there isn’t excessive edge enhancement to the point of haloing; no signs of compression artefacts either. Grain appears to be minimal throughout the film as well. My only real complaint about the transfer is that it feels soft at times. Sometimes this can vary from shot to shot, but more often than not it occurs during darker scenes. Other than that, this is a superb effort from Columbia Tri-Star and is worthy of the title Superbit.

Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition, The
Audio
As previously stated, the film is presented as a Superbit edition with 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 keeping pace with usual audio options for Superbits. The sound is pristine for the entire duration for the film. While the DTS track overshadows the Dolby Digital option (just a little bit in terms of the use of low frequencies) they are both fine ways to listen to the film. There are no sound artefacts present in the track, nor are there pops or hisses from the speakers. The balance of sound effects versus dialogue is handled extremely well. My only complaint is in the sound design which doesn’t immerse you into the director’s world in the way the images do. Basically all the channels aren’t used well enough. Other than that, the audio quality is excellent.


Extras
After the initial bare bones release of the film, Columbia Tri-Star has rewarded fans of The Fifth Element with a modest set of extras on the second disc. While there is no audio commentary option available (nor are there any deleted scenes), there are some promotional materials and a pop up trivia track to play with the film. Like the name of the extra the track only gives very trivial information about the film, and is not something that will interest the casual viewer. Unfortunately there are no trailers for the movie itself, but instead Columbia Tri-Star taints the release with trailers for other films. The only promotional material relating to The Fifth Element is a poster gallery for the world release.

Also on the second disc are six mini documentaries which chronicle the making of the film from its conception to the release. One portion looks at the inspiration behind the film, tracing the roots of the look and story to French comic books. Another portion looks at the casting of the film, and includes screen tests for the actors. The most interesting portion there is seeing how Leeloo’s look evolved from the early stages. Examinations of the designs for the creatures and special effects are also included on the disc, with more screen tests and glances at conceptual art. Some of these are worth looking into, with the screen tests and outtakes only appealing to fans of the genre and film.

Despite the lack of trailers, deleted scenes, and audio commentary, the extras are fulfilling. I would have liked to have seen more looks at the actual filming process, but unfortunately you can’t have everything. Overall the wealth of extra material here should be enough to fill the appetite of fans of The Fifth Element.

Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition, The
Overall
The Fifth Element is a highly imaginative, rip-roaring adventure that should appease the tastes of science fiction fans. That said, it is so immersed in the genre that it is probably not a movie that will appeal to casual movie fans. The special edition release of the film delivers with wonderful picture and sound quality, and an above average amount of extras. This is a must have for fans of The Fifth Element and fans of the genre. Those who are new to Luc Besson’s futuristic world may find solace in renting it first.


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