I’ve mentioned the term ‘100% entertainment’ before, but I don’t think I’ve ever explained its origin or its meaning in any depth. I first heard the term when Akira Kurosawa used it to describe his film The Hidden Fortress, the first lighthearted picture he’d made in years. The task of a ‘100% entertainment’ film is relatively simple: to entertain the audience and do little else. A picture that strives to be pure entertainment must, at least in theory, eschew any deep, emotional story, and instead present something fluffier—good examples of this would be John Woo’s Hard Boiled, or Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage. A pure-action film is not necessarily a bad idea on the face of it; certainly, a film can be engaging even if it doesn’t have a serious narrative (see The Fast and the Furious). The best example of this is Kurosawa himself. His film Yojimbo, a ‘100% entertainment’ picture, is now recognized as one of his finest works, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a rich story like his earlier Throne of Blood or Ikiru. As aforementioned, the goal of entertaining the audience is a simple one on paper, but actually achieving it is not so straightforward. Pure entertainment films still need to take seriously the aspects of filmmaking that they might be tempted to relax on—the story still has to be logical; the film must still have direction. Films that fail in that respect risk not being entertaining at all. Case in point: The Fifth Element.
I suspect this might not be a popular opinion, but so be it. I was startled to find that The Fifth Element currently enjoys a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (top critics at a much more reasonable—though perhaps still a little generous—45%). Were this film released today, that rating would almost certainly be lower. The problem is this: this movie has not aged well. I recall liking it in 1997, and still liking it for some time after that, but now it seems that the game is up and what magic there was has faded away. I realize now that this film has no plot and no direction, and that it simply cannot survive alone on what made it fun in the first place: Bruce Willis occasionally dropping a good one-liner. If you remove him from the equation you are left with nothing. What further reason is there to watch? The bland action? The lack of narrative? The bizarre (but unfortunately unsuccessful) set and costume design? There is no question that director Luc Besson was trying to make a pure entertainment piece—but he somehow forgot to include all the big, thrilling moments that are supposed to keep us riveted.
The Fifth Element’s formula is boilerplate. It presents us with a cavalcade of uncanny wonders wrapped in some action (nowhere near as much as advertized) and some comedy. We are supposed to be drawn in by the latter two qualities and wowed by the sights and sounds within. But it doesn’t mesh well. Strange worlds are fun to watch, but it’s all for naught if there’s no narrative to give it substance. And that’s this film’s biggest problem, for there is no logical plot binding the film together. There doesn’t have to be some elaborate structure—The Fast and the Furious is proof of that; a pure entertainment film that is successful despite its wafer-thin narrative—but the story must at least connect the dots, and The Fifth Element can’t even do that.
In one sequence, four different parties try to secure the last two seats on a charter flight to an exotic space liner (a cruise ship in space, one supposes). It happens that Willis gets the tickets, and it appears that he has won. But it doesn’t actually matter, because everybody that missed out on the flight actually makes it to the destination anyway—one character even flies his own ship there! So why was there a ten-minute brouhaha about who would get the tickets? What was the point of it all if the solution is as simple as commandeering your own spaceship? Do not try to ask further questions of the film, for it cannot answer them: why is there an alien race so determined to protect Earth from destruction, and how can a giant ball of fire (the object that Bruce Willis must ‘defeat’) spell doom for the entire universe? It’s all unclear.
Given his flimsy narrative, director Besson instead relies on the film’s extravagance to keep the viewer entertained, but none of it ever pays off. For one, it’s much too disparate. We go from a future metropolis to a 20th century European opera house. It’s difficult to reconcile the two, and the task is more trying due to the crazy costuming. Either Chris Tucker is dressed in drag, or he’s pretending to be super-flamboyantly gay, or he’s just being extravagant for the sake of it. Gary Oldman is dressed as Future Hitler, with half his face covered in what looks to be that impenetrable plastic that all small electronics now come sealed in. There is a blue-skinned alien opera singer that is very clearly just a woman with about $100 of prosthetics attached onto her. And, perhaps most disturbingly, Bruce Willis spends half the film in a backless tank top. None of the film’s crazy images mesh together; it is all, in a word, chaotic.
There are plenty of films that successfully implement a strange aesthetic. All such films are one thing: consistent. Blade Runner doesn’t look like our world, and a lot of the imagery in that film is weird if considered in a vacuum, but it all looks the same—it’s always dark, always grimy, always depressing. The same could be said of The Matrix. But here is an even better example, one that actually stems from a bad film—proof of the fact that bad films can still look good. Consider Ultraviolet. As I have argued before, it finds some success in its aesthetic. Its world is bright and colorful, and its future technologies are interesting: robot guards shatter like glass when hit; cellphones are now printed on what looks like cardboard; everybody wears bright latex. It is consistent, and it is pleasant to look at because it is unusual. One of the buildings in that world is shaped like the biohazard symbol. That isn’t practical design, but it’s intriguing, and it at least keeps the audience thinking. Everything in Ultraviolet is postmodern; it is all cut from the same cloth. By contrast, The Fifth Element is a hodgepodge of kitschy things, all crammed together in the hope that among the mess the viewer will find one or two interesting things that interest them.
The Fifth Element’s popularity is tied to the time period in which it was released. There hadn’t been many mainstream crazy science fiction films then—Independence Day was about as close as it got. The audience wanted something different, and Bruce Willis was still at his peak. It didn’t matter if he was trotted out as John McClane in everything, for that was what he was good at. But this film would not survive in theaters today—in a time where films like Avatar have captured the genre, The Fifth Element would be utterly admonished by critics if released now. It is, if anything, a sign that films like The Fast and the Furious—and even its ludicrous sequels, particularly 2 Fast 2 Furious, which I am most partial to—deserve significantly more respect than they get. We laugh them off as being lightweights, cable classics that can be ridiculed, popcorn flicks that we turn to when we want to shut our brains off. But those films are good at what they do, and, as The Fifth Element shows us, it is seems that things can easily go wrong. I often dismiss The Fast and the Furious as a bad film that I like. I have claimed that it can objectively be called bad: it has a bad script; it has bad acting, and so on. But I think it is appropriate to revise this stance. These are, in fact, good films, in as much as they achieve precisely what they set out to do. They are 100% entertaining. And that is more than can be said for others in their class.
Next week: it's been twenty years Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Join us in seven, won't you?