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Fifth Element, The (Superbit Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 09 October 2001

The Fifth Element: Superbit Edition
Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense sci-fi violence, some sensuality and brief nudity)
starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Milla Jovovich
release year: 1997
film rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture: Four Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Big, colorful and brash, "The Fifth Element" is a science-fiction film that has its tongue firmly in cheek and its narrative hand in the pockets of practically everything in the genre that has come down the pike before it. Not to worry – director Luc Besson, who co-wrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen from Besson’s original story, fills every last frame with a mind-warping array of images, then sets everything hurtling by at a pace so fast that questions are beside the point.

The super-abbreviated version of the plot goes like this: In the year 2259, Earth (along with the rest of the universe) is about to be besieged by a long-prophesied alien evil. Friendly Mondoshawan aliens intend to fight for good with a "fifth element" that will join together the other four – earth, air, fire, water – in creating a life force powerful enough to banish the menace. Alas, the Mondoshawans are waylaid and it falls to perplexed former elite soldier/current cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) to try to rescue the stones containing the four known elements and search for the mysterious fifth. At the same time, Korben attempts to protect a strange and beautiful young woman, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who literally drops into his cab and is integrally connected with the Mondoshawans’ efforts.

Besson believes in packing his shots with as much as they will hold. We get establishing views, full of depth, looking down from skyscrapers at traffic stacked hundreds of stories high in the air. With less careful video reproduction, these effects shots could all too easily dissolve into a semi-coherent mass of glittering pixels or imprecisely-edged movement. The clarity throughout the Superbit edition of "The Fifth Element" is breathtaking. In Chapter 8, when Leeloo looks down at the layers of cars whooshing past through the air beneath her, every vehicle in the frame is cleanly rendered with brilliant colors, as are the buildings in the background. The shots also hold up under this increased scrutiny – as Leeloo stands on a ledge, actress Jovovich is convincingly integrated into her three-dimensional surroundings.

Less overt details likewise benefit from the Superbit process. In Chapter 1, we see individual stars twinkling without any kind of bleed into the surrounding sky – each one is distinct and contained. In Chapter 2, we can see not only all the nuances of a set of crucial hieroglyphics, but also the minute natural fissures in their stone tablet. Later in the same chapter, when an alien spaceship takes off from the bright desert floor into the equally vivid sunlit sky above, the picture is precise enough for us to see individual vapor trails emitting from the craft’s rocket boosters.

The Superbit DTS sound on "Fifth Element" is generally wonderful, although there are a few places where – for want of a better term – it outsmarts itself with its own accuracy. Besson has a lot of characters talking into microphones, so that sometimes we hear the voices "live" and sometimes over a p.a. system. With less crystalline sound reproduction, switching back and forth between the two would still create a noticeable effect, but it probably wouldn’t be so dramatic as to be jarring. Microphone reverberation is no doubt realistic, even in the year 2259, but the live/amplifier back-and-forth effect won’t be everybody’s favorite part of the soundtrack.

On the other hand, listeners will be thrilled by a weapons demo in Chapter 13, with all kinds of bullets, rockets and other killer toys being fired in the mains and slamming into the rears, not to mention ricocheting all over the walls. Chapter 17 has a wonderful symphony of hissing flamethrowers, weird little shrieking critters, blips and spaceship takeoff roaring, all woven together by Eric Serra’s score into a kind of violent reggae medley. Chapter 21 introduces the Diva, a powder-blue, female-faced singer who appears to be related to the title creature in "Alien." The Diva’s soaring soprano is rendered lovely, clear and high in the center channel, leading into the justly-famed Chapter 22 setpiece, in which the Diva’s continuing aria is counterpointed by the crunching blows and bodies impacting furniture as Leeloo battles a gang of alien thugs in another part of the building. The sound is enveloping, with all of the effects beautifully balanced. A walk around the speaker system as the sequence plays out verifies that the vocals are primarily in the center channel, with major sound effects and music in the mains and strong dimensional support in the rears.

Another notable aspect of the DTS soundtrack here is its smoothness. There are a great many detonations in various sizes in "The Fifth Element," but even when these reach ear-tingling volumes, the room doesn’t vibrate – sound information is delivered in a manner that allows the speakers to maintain complete control.

There’s a heavy dose of comic book sensibility at work – it’s no accident that French graphic-novel illustrators Moebius (aka Jean Giraud) and Jean-Claude Mezieres are on the "Fifth Element" production design team, under chief designer Dan Weil. Despite the potentially heavy themes, Besson keeps the mood playful. He and Kamen borrow from "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Alien," "Blade Runner" and innumerable other sources, but the elements are juxtaposed in such unexpected ways and with such cheeky dexterity that while much of it feels familiar, none of it feels old. "The Fifth Element" for the most part is a pop epic of vivid hues, great visual imagination and heavy firepower with a disarmingly agreeable and intentional sense of humor.

more details
sound format:
English DTS, English Dolby Digital 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
special features: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Thai Subtitles; Scene Selections
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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