In the final scenes of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, when called upon to save the world from its imminent destruction by the force supernatural, transcendental chaos and evil, Leeloo, the incarnation of the titular Fifth Element—a human manifestation of the perfect being of divine life—poses the question: “What's the use in saving life when you see what you do with it?” She is prompted to ask this question after ruminating over a crash course on human history when nearing the end of an alphabetic tour of entries on an online encyclopedia (and no, it wasn’t Wikipedia as that platform wasn’t launched until 2001) upon encountering the entry for “War.” In so doing, Leeloo, with a style provided by Jean Paul Gaultier that defined a generation, is faced with the enormity of the known litany of destructiveness, horrors, suffering and cruelty that we humans have inflicted on each other, ourselves, throughout recorded history. A wreckage, as Walter Benjamin famously called it, that has only grown larger in scale and lethality, just as the evil force depicted in the film, with each new advance in technology and the so-called march of human progress.
Now, just twenty-five years after film’s release on May 9th, 1997, it’s a question that has grown only more pointed and ironic. That the film’s ultimate hero and savior of humankind, Leeloo, is played by Ukrainian-born, Milla Jovovich, makes this question all the more relevant and urgent as the world continues to watch through the panoptical gaze of digital surveillance in all its forms and 24-hours news as the city of her birth, Kyiv (Kiev), as well as Bucha, Mariupol and other cities in Eastern Ukraine, are relentlessly and brutally attacked by invading Russian forces in a renewed military offensive that began on February 24, 2022. Speaking out again these acts of inhumanity, Jovovich stated, “I am heartbroken and dumbstruck trying to process the events of this week in my birthplace of Ukraine. My country and people being bombed. Friends and family in hiding. My blood and my roots come from both Russia and Ukraine. I am torn in two as I watch the horror unfolding, the country being destroyed, families being displaced, their whole life lying in charred fragments around them.”
To place all of our focus just upon these recent examples of the horrors of modern warfare would be to minimize the enormous suffering and loss of life due to a myriad of different forms of human violence that societies have been subjected to over the 25 years since Leeloo posed her question. This is not even to mention the broader global destructiveness that accompanies the current epoch commonly referred to as the Anthropocene, in which the interrelated impacts of global warming, deforestation, pollution, and overpopulation, along with unprecedented species and habitat loss, have compounded to create what scientists and eco-philosophers such as Timothy Morton have acknowledged as a sixth mass extinction in global history. The magnitude this threat represents to the ongoing existence of a dynamic, living Earth capable of supporting human beings and other forms of advanced life is impossible to understate.
And yet for many, these consequences are also of a nature evocative of such terror and helplessness that we all-too-often take pains to push from our minds or normalize to avoid implicating ourselves in their causes and effects. While it is also important to discern that the basis of the original question Leeloo offered is not one simply confined to the results of warfare, either. Instead, it’s a response predicated on a previous observation made to Korben Dallas, played by Bruce Willis, and crucially, not offered from the point of view of a divine omniscient being, but as a transcendent figure in pursuit of divine wisdom through learning, whereby she observes, “everything you create, you use to destroy.” His casual response, “yeah, we call it human nature,” is one that lays bare the essential source of the problem. Thus, at least from the perspective of Besson’s sci-fi narrative, it is one in seeming agreement with that more cynical vision of human nature laid out by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan as what Leeloo forces us to confront is, if nothing else, a state of things that is nasty, brutish, and short down to its very core.
It is notable, too, the frame of such an inquiry is expressed through the science fiction genre, which constitutes forms of both writing and cinema that have displayed, since its inception, a consistent and forceful willingness to address the most urgent problems of human nature and an abiding concern for the futurity of the planet (and universe). This is a vision conveyed in the earliest cinematic examples all the way back to fellow French writer-director, Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune from 1902 and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1972), up to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). These examples all show sci-fi as a narrative frame that consistently seeks to turn the focus back onto humanity as a primary source and driver of self-destructiveness, while eschewing the escapism of religious dogmas or scientific uncertainty, which can both be exploited as a convenient means to abate or delimit the effects (and responsibility) of human will and agency under the guise of divine punishment or mere chaos.
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Besson forwards this agenda by drawing on another effective element of sci-fi narrative through his trademark combination of humor and lightheartedness in following authors such as Robert A. Heinlein, Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Neil Gaiman just to name a few, combined with philosophic depth that breaks the tension in scenes that might otherwise spiral down into an irrecoverable bleakness. This is apparent in Korben Dallas’ often irreverent commentaries and actions that lighten the tone of a film solidly positioned in the realm of dystopian narratives, while seeming to anticipate the pose that came to exemplify his portrayal of John McClane in the Die Hard franchise that has made it into a modern day Christmas classic. More comic relief is delivered by Chris Tucker in the role of Ruby Rhod, originally created for none other than Prince, as a celebrity talk show, singer-performer who live streams the main action sequences leading to the film’s culmination for their audience, before there was live streaming, which functions as a commentary on the vacuous nature of celebrity culture. If only they knew just how awful that would become! Well, we were warned.
But in The Fifth Element, it’s not German terrorists (RIP Hans, Alan Rickman) that Willis’ Korben Dallas is up against and it’s not just Nakatomi Plaza that needs defending as he is recruited for an unlikely mission by none other than the President of the Federated Territories played hilariously by Tom Lister Jr., (RIP)—with the aspiration/threat of American hegemony realized—to keep Leeloo safe and prevent her from falling into the hands of the film’s villains: the reptilian Mangalores, a ruthless, warlike species of space aliens motivated purely by mercenary concerns who are working for the even more detestable Texan-accented redneck, fashionista, Zorg played by Gary Oldman, and yeah, Gaultier. While it is never really clear what motivates Zorg as the completion of his mission to capture Leeloo, or seize control of the element stones, will both result in the complete destruction of the universe, it is also not difficult to understand when one considers the goals of oil companies and other global corporations bent on profits and growth in contexts where the livability of the earth itself is just one of the costs of doing business.
As we see in the film, the New York of 2263 has become much like the Los Angeles of 2019 in Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Blade Runner (1982), rife with over-crowding, rampant crime, and political oppression, in which the daily lives of the populace are mediated by the most banal sorts of technologies that they’ve lost their control over. A situation that has pushed them into a lifestyle in which there is little room for individuality, much less freedom, as the majority of the film’s earth-dwellers seem to be confined within sterile, multi-use, modular pods (which also make an appearance in Tarkovsky’s Solaris)—talk about lives of quiet desperation—where one’s most basic activities are tightly controlled and regulated. It’s an existence that for most has become defined by exploitation as Korben Dallas, when asked if he is “human” by a policeman who stands in as a representation of authoritarianism, says “negative, I am a meat popsicle,” the male objectification of the “meat puppets” found in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
Presented within a universe in which some bizarre version of French Polynesia has been transformed into an enormous pleasure ship/artificial planet called Fhloston Paradise and populated by a self-obsessed, wealthy elite given over to mindless debauchery, while being depicted as just plain stupid with their cowering denizens not knowing the difference between billiard balls and a gun. Surfaces are all that matter. The meaning of life has lost all depth with nearly everything reducible to objects of transactional exchange. The human characters are reflective of this state of things in almost every way within Besson’s vision of a future world and universe where everything is for sale, or simply given over to carnal and consumptive pleasures that offer only fleeting relief from their bleak existence, which like all visions of worldly paradise, are reduced to near complete triviality, meaningless, absurdity.
The one capacity that this universe has yet to defeat, and all that stands in the way of the falling of the eternal night of evil, which Alain Badiou reminds us “is possible only through an encounter with the Good,” of course, is love manifested in the divine form of Leeloo. Like in many a film involving the collision of beautiful misunderstood women and the rough and tumble men who stumble forth out of the crowd to help save them, attraction develops into love between Leeloo and Korben Dallas, bringing her back from a despairing apathy that threatens to overwhelm her after being confronted by the history of human warfare. It’s another irony that this reckoning with the past is performed by a character of which this history is not even her own, emphasizing the stubborn refusal members of human societies seem to maintain in not just learning from, but merely acknowledging their own past and history, rendering her hopeless for our collective failure.
But even this act of redemption only comes with seconds to spare, with the connection of a circuit that leads from the four primary earthy elements of earth, wind, water and fire back, not to inert technologies, bankrupt religious beliefs, or even the inherent life-giving capacities of those selfsame substances, but to the ineffable and mysterious power that resides in the human heart. Although such an ending is probably not what we might want or expect, especially from the more nuanced and thoughtful perspective of French cinema, sometimes it is nice to be reminded that in the face of hopelessness and despair, maybe the world will always be worth saving if for no other reason than because “love is worth saving.”