Religion’s contributing role in the creation of lasting science-fiction films.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a plethora of sci-fi films have been produced which mirror reality with a slight exaggeration or twist.
Many have themes of dystopian post-apocalyptic worlds like Mad Max, Waterworld, or the infamous Terminator series. Some may be based on alien-invasions like Arrival, or The Day The Earth Stood Still. Some may even be based on the natural order being disrupted like the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World franchises. Interestingly, many of the films mentioned above have deep religious undertones. That could be said with most sci-fi films of the last century. A standout in the field is the 1997 cult classic The Fifth Element. Directed and written by Luc Besson the film takes a very bold, thought-provoking approach to depict civilisation’s future destiny with not so subtle religious themes. It’s based on traditional values of good verse evil with a religious twist that manages to capture the viewer’s attention from the beginning of the film to its final, explosive end.
The film begins in an ancient temple in Egypt, 1914, where ancient writing is being deciphered. The archaeologist deciphering states that an “Evil” will present itself every 5,000 years, and the world and indeed life itself will be in danger. The one hope of life and our Earth being saved is a supreme being known as the ‘Fifth Element’.
The Fifth Element is the ultimate weapon to prevail over Evil, when used in conjunction with the four other elements; earth, wind, water and fire. These elements are represented through age-old stones, safeguarded by an alien race who have kept them hidden on Earth. When the aliens fear the stones are not safe on Earth anymore, they recover them and entrust them to another alien being, named Diva Plavalaguna, an opera singer. The aliens make a promise to the humans that when the Evil comes about, they will be there to unlock the power of the stones, together with the Fifth Element, and stop the impending doom. Thus, they will save all life on Earth from total destruction. The message they deliver to the humans is that “Time isn’t important. Only life.”
The story jumps to the year 2259, where an ex-marine now cab driver, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis – Die Hard, Red) becomes centre of attention to authorities when a woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich – Resident Evil) crashes into his cab. She is the Fifth Element, created from alien genetic material and constructed into a perfect human. Her purpose is to harness the power of the stones, stop the impending Evil, and to save life.
Analogies can be drawn at this point in the film to give the impression that Leeloo is a Jesus-like figure who must carry the burden of the sins of mankind. She cries at the lack of faith humanity holds and subsequent destruction that has been created. Although she is considered indestructible and set to protect humanity, she is really just as fragile as any other human.
The Evil is depicted as an all-consuming black ball of nothingness, zooming towards the vulnerable Earth. The Evil, is being assisted in its dastardly plan by Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman – The Dark Knight, Mank), a man who seeks to profit from the chaos the Evil will bring. Along with his alien mercenaries Zorg will stop at nothing to retrieve the stones.
Throughout the film we watch Leeloo learn the history of the human race, downloading encyclopaedic knowledge beginning with the letter ‘A’.
Undoubtedly the most powerful statement within the film is contained in one of the final scenes once she reaches ‘W’ and her eyes are opened to “war”.
At the crux of the narrative, when Evil is close to wiping out Earth and all living beings in the universe, Leeloo delivers the line “What’s the point in saving life when I see what you do to it” as she lay, dying in Korben’s arms after confronting Zorg in an earlier scene.
Leeloo is distraught, disillusioned and unwilling to play her role as saviour, as she takes on the sins of the world, learning just how lost humanity is and how destructive people are to each other.
A key message within the film is that all life is sacred and should be valued with equality. Viewers may reflect upon their own belief in their religion, as well as personal ethical choices.
Leeloo cries that she doesn’t know the meaning of love, but that unmerited love is worth saving. Korben teaches her love, and once realising that it is worth saving, she releases the ‘Divine Light’, stopping the Evil.
While the narrative may seem like a combination of films that came before it like Star Wars or Blade Runner through the similar use of visual and audio techniques, there are deeper messages about love and war and the impact religion has on these throughout the film.
A prime example of the theme of conflict and hostility represented within the film is shown in the initial scene. Evil appears as a seemingly unstoppable force which destroys all in its path. A warship goes to intervene but ends up being obliterated.
The film can be said to reflect modern society in the way that there is always the eternal struggle between good and evil, no matter what way you look at it.
Besson’s vision of the future is probably more realistic than Star Wars. Yet, it would be wrong to say the future present day in The Fifth Element is bright. Besson may not have realised how true to life his story was going to be. It may not be as bleak as the foreseen outlook in Waterworld, where the human race is on the verge of destruction due to global warming. Rather it mirrors our current world problems such as crime, government, abuse, polluted and trash-ridden walkways, and an overcrowded population. Humans in The Fifth Element live in the retro future, with crowded thoroughfares of flying cars and mile-high skyscrapers with the production design combining funky design elements from films such as Metropolis and Blade Runner.
With the script, lighting, camerawork and music composition, The Fifth Element can be said to be rather advanced for its time. The unconventional camerawork and visual art style throughout the film spill over into the soundtrack, with an eclectic influence of music types used to score by composer Eric Serra.
During what is arguably the best scene in the film Diva Plavalguna (Maïwenn Le Besco) sings an operatic piece while the camera abruptly cuts to Leeloo fighting Zorg’s henchmen. The fight choreography is set to the music and in this sequence, the music is used as a dramatic undertone for the scene. It’s outstanding and the scoring across the film hits all the right beats, just as much as the costume and set designs.
The Fifth Element is indeed a splendour for the eyes with costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier that are just as iconic over twenty years later. It goes to show the sort of cultural impact it had when cosplayers are still dressing in many of the film’s outfits.
The beats the film hits are all outstanding, and that includes the pacing of the plot, with the main message of love a powerful one that is captured and portrayed by the two protagonists, Korben and Leeloo.
The film is peppered with attention capturing details of life in the future, philosophical insights into human nature, and shows just how fragile all life can be.
This goes to further the message that religion impacted this film’s inception deeply, with many scenes doing what films should be doing these days and showing the audience, not just telling us the importance of Leeloo surviving to defeat the Evil and to be the saviour of humanity.
By the end of the film she is the supreme being, the saviour of humanity. For all its sins up to 2259 like overcrowding, war and pollution, Leeloo learns that love and joy can survive to make humanity and the Earth a better place, and that people are worth saving. Especially for love.