Big Bada-Boom! 30 Things You Might Not Have Known About The Fifth Element
When sci-fi fantasy adventure The Fifth Element exploded onto screens in 1997, audiences around the world had never seen anything quite like it. Where most cinematic visions of Earth in the far future tended to be either hopelessly bleak (Blade Runner) or implausibly idyllic (Star Trek), this film presented us with a loud, colourful and richly detailed world with a personality all of its own.
The Fifth Element also presented us with a space opera that was very different in tone and content to the sort we’d seen before, as – although it’s in English – it’s actually a French movie, and a longtime passion project of its writer-director Luc Besson.
Join us now while we take you back to the future (no, not that one) with some facts about The Fifth Element you might not have known.
30. Luc Besson started working on the story at 16
Filmmaker Luc Besson first dreamed up the colourful future world of The Fifth Element in his youth, and started work on the film’s script in 1975, when he was just 16.
However, it wasn’t until 1991, when Besson had made a name for himself with successful films including The Big Blue and La Femme Nikita, that he started actively working to make The Fifth Element a reality.
The world of The Fifth Element was deeply important to Besson, and he understood it as more than just a cool science-fantasy setting for a future film of his.
Instead, Besson created a sprawling fictional universe with dozens of interconnected storylines, alien races, quests and characters – in order to immerse himself fully in another place and escape the loneliness of his childhood.
Besson was an only child as well as a child of divorce, and he even once described himself as “the only bad souvenir of something that doesn’t work”, when referring to his parent’s relationship. He even went so far as to say that as a child, he thought that if he were to disappear, then everything in his parents’ lives would be perfect.
This upbringing meant that escaping into the world that would become the setting of The Fifth Element was deeply comforting and cathartic for him, and his love for the world he created as a vulnerable teenager shows through in the finished film, which he made so many years later.
29. Influential comics artists Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières helped design the film
As development on The Fifth Element was getting underway, Besson met two of the most revered comic book artists from his native France, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières.
The filmmaker had been greatly inspired by both artists when envisioning the world of The Fifth Element, so he hired them both to work on the film as conceptual artists.
Unfortunately for Besson, despite his admiration for Giraud and his commitment to collaborating with him to create the world of The Fifth Element, Giraud still wound up believing that Besson had plagiarised his work.
Specifically, both Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and his fellow comic book artist Alejandro Jodorowsky believed that Besson had drawn inspiration directly from their comic book The Incal, instead of working together with them to create something brand new and original.
Giraud even went so far as to sue for 13.1 million euros for unfair competition, as well as nine million euros in damages and interest. Not only that, but Giraud also demanded five percent of the net operating revenues of the movie.
The case was dismissed in 2004 on the grounds that because Giraud had agreed to work with Besson on the movie, it was impossible to decipher what was plagiarism and what was accidental inspiration. The judge did however confirm that “tiny fragments” of Giraud’s comic had been straight-up stolen by Besson. Yikes.
28. Mel Gibson turned down the chance to play Korben Dallas
The Fifth Element may have been a French production, but Besson always intended to shoot it in English and knew he needed a real Hollywood leading man for the role of central hero Korben Dallas.
For the space marine-turned-flying taxi driver, the filmmaker only had one actor on his wish list: Bruce Willis. However, it was touch and go for a while whether Willis would be enamoured or confused by the unique script and, even if he liked it, Besson didn’t know if Willis would agree to play the part for such a reduced salary.
At the point during pre-production where Besson had not yet worked up the courage to approach Willis about the part, the director did decide to pursue other leads and audition some other actors, just in case Willis did eventually decline.
The other American actor at the top of Besson’s list was Mel Gibson, who had made a name for himself as a capable leading man and action star in projects like Lethal Weapon and Mad Max.
Mel Gibson had the perfect skill set to bring Korben Dallas to life, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of appearing in the movie. Gibson declined pretty much immediately, leaving Besson once again without a star.
Thankfully, Besson did eventually get his first choice of leading man, and it is almost impossible to imagine a version of The Fifth Element that stars anyone other than Bruce Willis… especially Mel Gibson.
27. Besson met with over 300 actresses before casting Milla Jovovich as Leeloo
Arguably even more vital to The Fifth Element than the casting of hero Korben Dallas was the casting of Leeloo, the mysterious super-powered woman who turns out to be the ‘fifth element’ of the title.
Besson and company searched far and wide for the right actress; the filmmaker says, “I met a lot of girls. The casting call was 8,000, and I met two or three hundred.”
Ultimately, Besson was most impressed by Milla Jovovich. The Fifth Element was the Ukrainian-American actress’s first action-oriented movie, though she has made a great many more since.
Speaking in an interview about why he made the decision to cast Jovovich, Besson said: Milla has the physical thing, she can be from the past or the future.”
Besson went on to praise Jovovich, saying: “She can be an Egyptian or a Roman. She can be Nefertiti and she can be from outer space. That was one thing that I liked physically about her.”
Milla Jovovich agreeing to play Leeloo was far from a sure thing though, as the actress had stepped away from the spotlight and even considered herself on hiatus from acting when she auditioned for the part.
26. Gary Oldman agreed to play Zorg on the condition that Besson co-produced his directorial debut
Gary Oldman had first worked with Luc Besson on Leon, in which the British actor gave what has been hailed as one of the best bad guy performances ever.
Besson was keen to cast Oldman a second time as The Fifth Element’s villain Zorg, but Oldman was less than enthusiastic about the project.
Finally, Oldman agreed to make the movie on a quid pro quo basis; in return, Besson would serve as a producer on Nil by Mouth, the acclaimed 1997 drama which marked Oldman’s first (and to date only) film as screenwriter and director.
Just because he agreed to appear in the film though, does not mean that Oldman had a good time making it. In an interview with Playboy magazine over a decade later in 2014, Oldman revealed that he “couldn’t bear” the project.
Gary Oldman even went so far as to straightforwardly admit: “It was me singing for my supper. I owed him one”, making it clear that appearing in The Fifth Element was far from a passion project or fun diversion for the actor.
In fairness, the majority of the cast reported having an awesome time on set, so maybe Oldman was the only actor who found himself unable to buy into the silliness of it all.
25. Prince turned the part of Ruby Rhod down because he thought Rhod’s costumes were “too effeminate”
For the role of Ruby Rhod, the flamboyant radio host who accompanies our heroes on their journey to the alien world of Fhloston Paradise, Besson cast comedian Chris Tucker.
Tucker had only recently made a name for himself in Hollywood, having not long since risen to fame with his hit comedy Friday, and was completely on board to play into the film’s campier moments.
However, Tucker was not the first choice for the role: Besson had originally hoped to cast none other than music icon Prince, and met with the superstar to discuss the movie.
However, in a perhaps surprising move, Prince declined after being shown the concept designs for what Ruby Rhod would look like.
Despite the costumes being somewhat inspired by the musician’s own stagewear, and not being anywhere near as provocative as the outfits he was known for wearing onstage and in his music videos, Prince dismissed the wardrobe as “too effeminate”.
Rather than ask for amendments or for certain outfits to be toned down, Prince simply walked away from the project, leaving Besson to find another actor of a similar size who could pull off the bold prints and hairdo.
24. Jean-Paul Gaultier designed the film’s costumes
While it’s surprising that Prince wasn’t comfortable with The Fifth Element’s costuming, it’s certainly true to say the outfits worn in the movie are a fair bit more outrageous and eye-catching than what you usually see in your standard futuristic blockbuster.
This was no accident, as for the film’s costume designs Besson enlisted yet another influential French superstar: Jean-Paul Gaultier, the world-renowned fashion designer (and, as some readers may recall, co-host of 90s TV series Eurotrash).
Despite already being a living legend in the world of high fashion and runway, Jean-Paul Gaultier took his job as head of wardrobe for the film very seriously. Gaultier was always present on set, and would make on-the-spot adjustments and fittings to the actors’ outfits until seconds before the cameras started rolling.
Not only that, but he paid fastidious attention to every costume that was in his care, no matter how prominently they were to be featured in the scene. Before a sequence was shot that required 500 extras, Gaultier personally checked the costume of each one to make sure it was up to his personal standards.
All in all, Jean-Paul Gaultier worked his fingers to the bone making over 1000 costumes for the cast to wear, which involved yards of fur and latex in addition to normal fabrics, and thousands upon thousands of appliques and sequins.
Gaultier’s hard work was thankfully recognised, as The Fifth Element was nominated for a César Award for Best Costume Design.
23. The blue alien Diva was played by Luc Besson’s wife (who he left for Milla Jovovich during production)
Even though her appearance in the film is brief, everyone who sees The Fifth Element remembers Plavalaguna, the blue-skinned alien opera diva who gives a memorable vocal performance.
This role was taken by Maïwenn Le Besco, who was married to Luc Besson at the time. Besson started dating Le Besco when he was 31 and she was 15, and he later claimed that their relationship inspired his movie Léon, in which the plot revolves around the emotional relationship between an adult man and a teenage girl.
Le Besco was Besson’s second wife, as he had previously dated and married Anne Parillaud, the actress who had starred in his 1990 film La Femme Nikita. Besson’s first marriage ended in 1991, just before he began writing the script for The Fifth Element.
While making The Fifth Element, Besson grew apart from Le Besco and began an affair with Jovovich, divorcing his second wife and marrying his third in the same year.
Besson and Jovovich relationship did not work out either though, as the pair divorced two years later in 1999, when he was 40 and she was just 21. Besson did not tie the knot again until 2004, when he married producer Virginie Silla.
Besson has five children, three with Silla, one with Parillaud and another with Le Besco. His fourth marriage is still going strong to this day, however.
22. Bruce Willis took a pay cut to make the film
Luc Besson might have come up with the characters and basic plot for The Fifth Element when he was a young teenager, but he had a much more cemented idea of what he wanted the movie to look like by the early 90s.
Besson’s vision included one particular star that he wanted at the helm, and that star was Bruce Willis, who at the time was still an emerging talent given the release of Die Hard just a couple of years before.
Unfortunately for Besson, by the time The Fifth Element was moving into the production phase in the mid-to-late 90s, Bruce Willis had transitioned into a very bankable leading man, which considerably raised his price tag.
Dejected, Besson looked into casting a few other actors in the lead but, even after holding auditions during which a number of other well-known performers did their best to win the part, nobody seemed as much of a good fit as Willis.
Luckily for Besson, Willis was a good sport when he was approached about the project, and simply said that if he liked the script, he’d figure out a way to do it for an amount of money that worked for both him and the production.
In the end, Willis settled for a fraction of his normal salary and a percentage of the profits, saying in an interview; “Sometimes I just do it because they’re just fun… and this was a real fun movie to make”. What a guy!
21. Milla Jovovich couldn’t get the hang of high kicks – so Besson used a fake leg on a stick instead
Mila Jovovich’s Leeloo is one of the most memorable parts of The Fifth Element. With her bright red hair, iconic strappy white outfit and unusual mannerisms, she stands out even among the other colourful and eccentric characters in the movie.
While Leeloo was written to be an attention-grabbing character no matter who played her, there is no doubt that Jovovich’s performance brought her to life, even though preparing for the role involved a great deal of hard work on the part of the then-19-year-old actress.
For months prior to production, Jovovich spent eight hours a day working out at the gym and being taught karate, in order to be able to participate in the demanding fight scenes that the script asked of her.
Across that time, her stamina and knowledge of martial arts improved enormously, so much so that she was able to pull off most of the fight choreography with relative ease. One thing did not improve quite so quickly though, and that was her flexibility.
Despite her dedication to the role, Jovovich simply didn’t have the time to work on her body’s natural flexibility, and so even when she could pull off most of the moves required of her in the fight scenes, she could not kick her legs up high enough.
This problem was solved in the most old-school way possible, with a fake leg on a stick that was manoeuvred during certain shots, to make it look like Leeloo was capable of kicking above her head. See if you can spot the fake leg the next time you watch the film.
20. Elizabeth Berkley almost played Leeloo
It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Milla Jovovich in the role of Leeloo, but given that Besson auditioned around 300 women to find the right actress for the part, it very well could have been someone else donning the iconic white outfit.
One of the actresses who came the closest to taking the crown (or orange wig) from Jovovich was Elizabeth Berkley, who had risen to fame playing Jessie Spano in the hit teen show Saved by the Bell.
Unfortunately for Berkley, when she auditioned for The Fifth Element she was coming off the back of her performance in Showgirls, a 1995 erotic drama and one of the most famously maligned movies in all of cinema history.
Berkley won two Golden Raspberries as a result of her performance: one for Worst Actress and another for Worst New Star. The film itself was also nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, Worst Director and Worst Original Song, all categories which it won. Yikes.
Berkley found herself unable to secure auditions and meetings with directors following Showgirls, and so was grateful to those who still considered her for their projects. Besson was one such director, and Berkley made it into the final stage of auditions to play Leeloo before Jovovich was selected instead.
Speaking about the experience later, Berkley said: “I got very close to getting cast on The Fifth Element, and Luc Besson couldn’t have been more supportive.”
19. No one knows what year the movie takes place in
The world depicted in The Fifth Element might look considerably far away from our current one, but the movie does in fact take place on Earth, just a fair bit into the future.
While the opening scene of the film canonically takes place in 1914, the futuristic portion of the movie is a little bit harder to pin down in terms of a date, since all we really know is that the events of the film take place at some point during the 23rd century.
Like many other science fiction and science fantasy giants including Star Trek and Star Wars, fans of The Fifth Element have expended huge amounts of effort in order to construct a conclusive timeline that puts a date to everything that happens over the course of the film.
Unfortunately, the movie does anything but make it easy for them, as any clues fans are given as to when the film is taking place are immediately contradicted by something else later on. As a result, no-one can really agree on the year the movie is set.
If you want to go by authorial intent, then the answer is 2259, as that’s the year that Besson talks about in his book The Story of The Fifth Element. However, the notes contained in the DVD extras say 2257, which is two years earlier.
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, we get a peek at Korben Dallas’ alarm clock during the movie’s runtime, which also displays the year. So if you want to go by only the evidence presented in the film itself, then the answer to the question “when does The Fifth Element take place?” would be 2263.
18. Leeloo’s made-up language had over 400 words in it
Throughout much of The Fifth Element, Leeloo is heard speaking The Divine Language. Even if you watch the movie with subtitles, most of the words she says in this language are never translated, so it is impossible to know exactly what she’s saying.
Given that no subtitles are offered when Leeloo is speaking, it would be fair to assume that the language is pure nonsense, and Milla Jovovich is simply saying whatever random sounds came to mind in the moment. However, the truth is a bit more interesting.
Leeloo’s Divine speech is actually pretty close to being a fully formulated language, with its own words, grammatical rules and correct syntax. All in all, the language is around 400 words strong, and Milla Jovovich memorised the whole thing as part of her preparation for the role.
Jovovich was not the only one to dive deeply into The Divine Language either, as Besson also made sure to memorise the language as he was helping to formulate it. By the end of production on The Fifth Element, both Besson and Jovovich were as close to fluent speakers as it’s possible to be.
During pre-production, the pair of them would have full conversations in their made-up language, and would also write letters to each other exclusively using it. As a result, the rest of the cast hardly ever knew what they were talking about on set, unless they chose to share.
There’s no knowing if the two of them continued this hobby when they were married, or if they had long forgotten how to speak The Divine Language by then, but it’s certainly fun to think about.
17. Besson demanded that the action scenes be shot in broad daylight
Nowadays, the science fiction genre is full of movies featuring spaceships with glowing white corridors, sterile steel accents and spotless, brightly lit walls. Therefore, it might not seem particularly revolutionary for a filmmaker to opt for a well-lit aesthetic.
With that said, when Besson was making The Fifth Element, many science fiction films had a much grubbier look to them. Futuristic worlds would be dirty and cluttered, and spaceships would be full of dark corners where anyone would be able to hide.
As classic as this aesthetic had become by the time Besson was working on his masterpiece, the gloomy look could not have been further away from his own personal style. Instead, he decided to go in a very different direction, by introducing as much light as possible.
Not only did he build sets in bright colours that would bounce the light around, but he also incorporated plenty of light sources into the designs of the buildings themselves. As a result, The Fifth Element has a unique and fun aesthetic that matches the tone of the movie.
In order to further deviate from trends at the time, Besson also insisted that any action scenes would have to take place during the day, and be shot in broad daylight so everything could be clearly seen and understood.
Given that many action movies even today opt to create scenarios in which the full-tilt action scenes happen at night or in particularly dark and gloomy spaces, Besson’s choices still set his movies apart, and are part of the reason that The Fifth Element is so beloved.
16. The Diva music was physically impossible to sing
There’s no denying that the Diva is one of the most visually striking characters in The Fifth Element, drawing fascination from both in-universe audiences and those watching the film. More than her iconic look though, what comes out of her mouth is also capable of immediately demanding attention.
The Diva’s voice was provided by Inva Mula, a professional soprano opera singer who has lent her voice to the soundtracks of movies such as 22 Bullets, as well as performing in filmed operas such as Falstaff and Rigoletto.
If the song that Mula delivers for the Diva’s performance sounds otherworldly and impossibly technical to you, it’s because it actually is. When the film’s composer Éric Serra showed Mula the sheet music for her song, Mula was forced to inform him that he had written something beyond the capabilities of the human voice.
The problem with Serra’s composition was that there were huge leaps in the pitch of the notes, but the notes came very close together, making it impossible for even the most seasoned performer to transition from one note to the next as quickly as the music demanded.
To get around this, Mula did not sing any continuous takes, and instead performed each note in isolation. Then, her vocals were digitised one note at a time and artificially placed into the music, in order to make it sound as though she had recorded them in one fluid take.
The result is a song that sounds as though it could not possibly have been sung by any human, because it really couldn’t be. If you listen closely, you can even hear the Diva’s vocal tone shift inorganically throughout the performance, which is a dead giveaway that the song was not all performed in one go.
15. There was originally a subplot about striking alien garbage collectors
The world we see in The Fifth Element is eclectic and densely populated, with all kinds of people and a variety of alien species living together in harmony. With that said, there’s no denying that the majority of the characters we encounter are pretty humanoid.
The reason for this is simple: the closer to human an alien race looks, the cheaper it is to make costumes and prosthetics that can transform an average human actor into one of them. The Fifth Element is a sprawling sci-fi story with multiple locations and lots of visual effects, and so going over budget was always a concern.
Unfortunately for all of us, Besson’s need to deliver the film within a reasonable timeframe and for a reasonable amount of money meant a lot of extra world-building details eventually got cut from the movie. In particular, the hilarious garbage aliens were lost.
Early development sketches all the way up to official promotional materials show a race of long, spindly aliens with ant-eater style noses present on the version of 23rd Earth shown in The Fifth Element.
These aliens were supposed to be a race of garbage collectors, who were on strike for better wages and treatment at the time the movie takes place. That is why, in many shots in the film, you can see piles of garbage strewn about for no apparent reason.
These adorable aliens would have been seen protesting with slogans and sandwich board signs, to tie into the working-class identity of taxi driver and military man Korben Dallas. However, these aliens were cut before the film was released, even if fans of the movie’s universe have never forgotten them.
14. Chris Tucker nearly quit on his first day
Walking into a role that was originally supposed to go to the Artist Formerly Known As Prince has got to be intimidating all on its own but, when you add the over the top charisma needed to make the performance work, it must have been pretty terrifying.
Not only that, but Chris Tucker also had to contend with an outlandish wardrobe that wasn’t exactly designed with him in mind, which would have only added to his unease and discomfort on his first day.
Though Tucker delivered a performance that managed to hold its own against all the other wild things and crazy things happening in the same movie, he didn’t have an entirely doubt-free time on set.
In fact, Chris Tucker genuinely considered throwing in the towel on his first day, after a bit of playful ribbing from his co-star Bruce Willis.
In a recent Reddit AMA, Chris Tucker revealed that he walked onto the set on the first day of the shoot feeling distinctly nervous, and that things only got worse when Bruce Willis began talking to him.
Tucker explained: “Bruce Willis came up to me on the first day of shooting, looked at my outfit and said, ‘Do you know this could ruin your career?’ Then Luc Besson yelled action before I had a chance to quit, and I’m so glad he did.”
13. Besson kept grabbing his actors while shooting
Most actors will work with dozens of directors over the course of their careers, with only a few settling down into long-term and exclusive collaborations with just one or two names in the industry. This means that most people in the acting profession will get used to adapting to various directorial styles.
For example, actors who worked with Stanley Kubrick came to expect an excessive amount of takes to be filmed of every scene, while Hitchcock was notorious for disliking it when his actors improvised. Similarly, the cast of The Fifth Element had to get used to Besson’s hands-on approach.
When directing a film, Besson always spends the majority of the time operating the camera himself, which is fairly unusual but isn’t completely unheard of. However, he also loathes the word cut, and instead stops a scene to give his actors feedback while the camera keeps rolling.
That already makes for a pretty unique atmosphere and way of working on set, but Besson has also been known to grab his actors while explaining what he needs from them, even going so far as to take them by the shoulders and drag them into the correction position while talking to them.
While most of the actors working on The Fifth Element were used to receiving feedback between takes and being corrected on their blocking if they accidentally stood in the wrong place, they definitely weren’t used to being physically moved around.
With that said, not only does Besson’s unique way of working tend to get results, but his actors always report having fun on set, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to change his approach in the future.
12. The hero of the film is a taxi driver as a tribute to Besson’s father
Throughout his career, Bruce Willis has played many down to Earth characters that represent what a kind-hearted average Joe would do when thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The same is true of his role in The Fifth Element, where he goes from a futuristic taxi driver to the one fated to save the world.
The choice to make Korben Dallas a taxi driver was not just to emphasise Bruce Willis’ salt of the Earth aesthetic though, as Besson has included a taxi driver in every story or film he has ever written.
Besson’s tradition goes all the way back to when he was a teenager, writing stories and dreaming of going to art school to hone his craft. Besson did eventually get the opportunity to go study, but only because of the sacrifices his father made for him.
In order to support his son, Besson’s father worked a second job as a taxi driver in order to fund Besson’s studies, which eventually set him on the path to becoming a successful director, screenwriter and producer.
In order to honour his father and repay him for his kindness, Besson has made sure to include the figure of a taxi driver in every single one of his projects, often making them strong, kindly or heroic in some way.
The Fifth Element allowed Besson to take his tribute to the next level, as his heroic taxi driver character is allowed to be the saviour of all of future Earth. Not a bad legacy if you ask me.
11. It was the highest-grossing French movie ever
Given its incredibly divisive tone, plot and production design, it would not be surprising if The Fifth Element had flopped at the box office, having proved itself too over the top and confusing for general audiences to fall in love with.
However, this could not be further from the truth, as The Fifth Element turned out to be one of the biggest commercial successes in the history of French cinema.
With a production budget of $90 million, The Fifth Element was the most expensive movie ever produced by the French film industry up to that point – but happily this paid off.
With global box office returns of just under $264 million, it became the highest-earning French film in history.
The Fifth Element held this record until 2011, when comedy-drama The Intouchables proved a bigger hit, taking $426.6 million worldwide.
As for the highest-grossing British production, that honour is still unsurprisingly held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt.2.
10. Milla Jovovich had to wear a wig for half the movie because the constant dyeing damaged her hair
There’s no denying that Milla Jovovich’s look in The Fifth Element is completely iconic. With her strappy white bodysuit and bright orange hair, you know she’s important from the second she appears on screen, even if you don’t know why yet.
Like all the other costumes in the movie, Leeloo’s look was the product of a collaboration between numerous concept artists and legendary French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, resulting in a look that is both fantastical and fashion forward.
Leeloo’s choppy ginger bob is an integral part of this look, since her shock of bright orange hair is what first sets her apart from the other characters around her.
Unfortunately, while Jovovich was apparently thrilled by the fact that the hairstyle changed her appearance enough to hide the fact that she had recently had a nose job, the upkeep that the colour required proved disastrous.
In order to ensure that her hair had the same level of vibrancy across every scene in the movie, Jovovich had to have her dye job topped up and replenished every couple of weeks.
The constant wear and tear resulted in her hair being incredibly damaged and broken, and so it was decided that she should wear a wig instead. If you watch the film closely, you can spot the scenes where Jovovich is wearing a wig.
9. The film contains the largest indoor explosion ever filmed
For a cult science fiction flick with a somewhat campy tone and director known for eccentricity, it is a credit to The Fifth Element that it managed to break quite so many records.
In addition to being the biggest budget French film ever made, as well as the most successful of them for a time, The Fifth Element also managed to pull off the largest indoor explosion ever set to film.
During the scene where the Fhloston hall is engulfed in flames, there is a huge fireball explosion that Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas is forced to flee from.
You might have expected that the scene was accomplished with some digital trickery, but the stunt was pulled off entirely practically, and in its success became the first of its kind.
The risky stunt still remains one of the best sequences in film to involve an entirely practical explosion, putting The Fifth Element in the company of huge spy and action flicks like Mission: Impossible.
This fact is made even more impressive when you know that the resulting fire very nearly spread out of control too, but was quickly reined back in by fire safety officials on set.
8. Luc Besson wished he’d taken even longer to make the film
The Fifth Element is about as close to a pure passion project as it is possible to get. Luc Besson was determined to get it made but, even with five prior movies under his directorial belt, nobody was willing to take the financial risk of backing his wacky sci-fi adventure.
It took Besson making the hugely successful Léon, which made $45 million on a $16 million budget, for studios to consider him careful enough with money to be worth working with.
The success of Léon meant that production could begin on The Fifth Element in the mid-90s, after Besson began pre-production and shopping for studio backing as early as 1992. After what felt like a lifetime of waiting, Besson’s dream project was finally released in 1997.
However, even though Besson had clamoured for the film to be made as soon as it possibly could, he soon began to wish that he had waited just a little bit longer to bring Leeloo and Korben Dallas’ story to life. The reason why was simple: computers.
Speaking in an interview, Besson said: “I was a little bit frustrated because I made the film right before all the new effects arrived. So when I did the film it was all blue screen, six hours, dots on the wall, takes forever to do one shot.”
He then went on to say: “Now, basically, you put the camera on your shoulder and then you run and then you add a couple of dinosaurs and spaceships.” That certainly would have made making the movie a lot easier.
7. Critics either loved it or hated it
The Fifth Element premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 7th May 1997, and the assembled audience of film industry professionals and critics were left wildly divided by the film.
It seemed to be one of those movies which people either loved or hated, with very little middle ground between the two camps.
The reviews reflected this when the film went on general release, with Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times calling it: “a lot warmer, more fun, and boasts some of the most sophisticated, witty production and costume design you could ever hope to see.”
Other critics were not quite so complimentary, with Todd McCarthy writing for Variety and saying: “A largely misfired European attempt to make an American-style sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element consists of a hodgepodge of elements that don’t comfortably coalesce.”
Even so, today The Fifth Element sits on a 71% fresh rating at reviews aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, so all in all the favourable opinions outweigh the negative ones. It is also clearly beloved by audiences, which explains why it has enjoyed such longevity as a cult favourite.
Nowadays, critics are still undecided about whether The Fifth Element is an undeniably good movie, an unquestionably bad one, or one with bonafide “so-bad-it’s-good” status. Perhaps it is up to every individual to make up their own mind about it.
6. Zorg and Korben never actually meet in the film
All movies are different, but there are a couple of conventions that you can expect to see from most films, even if there are plenty of exceptions to prove the rules.
In most cases, you can expect to see a hero who is pulled into the conflict and has to save the day, whether they expected it or not.
As well as that, you can usually expect to find a villain who was instrumental in beginning the conflict, and exists to cause problems throughout the movie.
In most cases, the hero and villain are both aware of each other, and even meet numerous times in order to battle it out, cleverly foil the other’s plans, or just throw some good old-fashioned barbs.
The Fifth Element adheres to many general film conventions, as well as many that are specific to the science fiction genre. There is a clear hero and villain, a MacGuffin, and a zany comedy sidekick for good measure.
With that said, there is no epic showdown between hero and villain. In fact, unlike in earlier drafts of the screenplay, in the finished film Korben Dallas and Zorg never meet at all.
5. It’s implied that Korben Dallas used to work for Zorg
Given that hero Korben Dallas and villain Zorg never actually meet across the runtime of The Fifth Element, it can be difficult to feel like there is any connection between them.
However, far from going on two different quests that are entirely divorced from each other, the two character’s lives and missions are indeed tangled.
The key to understanding this is the termination notice that Korben Dallas gets that brings his time as a taxi driver to an end.
The termination reads: “Notice of termination of your contract, effective as of today. Due to violation of codes, HFGY56, 74HVB, 00JGHY, MNH356585, MCNH485757, 0478N – your engagement with this company finishes immediately. For, and on behalf of, ZORG.”
This notice makes it clear that Dallas was actually an employee of Zorg, even if he never saw his boss due to the huge amount of companies he runs.
If you missed the notice the first time you watched the film, you probably still got the general idea, as Dallas’ termination occurs in the movie just after Zorg announces his intention to fire one million of his employees to stave off disruption in the economy.
4. The number five appears throughout the film
As is made obvious by the film’s title, The Fifth Element’s plot is driven by the retrieval of the four elements, which numerous interested parties want to locate and use, and the secret fifth element which is revealed to be Leeloo.
However, this obsession with the number five goes much further than just what is seen in the general plot, as the number is baked deeply into the visual fabric of the film.
For example, at the very beginning of the film we are told that Korben Dallas’ license has just five points left on it, and nearer the end of the film, Zorg stops his bomb with five seconds left on the clock.
In a similar manner, the Mangalore’s bomb starts up with that same five-second timer before it goes off.
As if that were not enough, Ruby Rhod says later in the movie that “there’s a bomb going off every five minutes”, and Rhod’s show is also on at 5pm.
Lastly, the doctor that we see at the end says that Korben and Leeloo need five more minutes. What a motif.
3. Zorg references French economic theory in the film
Gary Oldman might not be thrilled with his performance in The Fifth Element, but his portrayal of the evil and ruthless Zorg definitely has its fair share of memorable moments.
In particular, in one early scene, Zorg invites the priest Vito Cornelius to his private lair, and espouses his personal philosophy while he serves himself a drink.
Zorg outlines his outlook on the world, explaining that he believes all life to be the result of destruction, and making the leap that as such, chaos and upheaval are necessary to create further productivity and growth in the economy.
Zorg’s proclamation is then undercut and made to seem pretty ironic, as in that moment he hilariously chokes on the cherry that he had used to garnish his drink – only surviving because Cornelius saves him.
As wrong as Zorg is proved to be in the end, the theory he believes in is actually not one of his own design, since it’s a pretty good approximation of The Parable of the Broken Window.
This philosophical concept, first explored by French economist Frederic Bastiat in 1850, says much the same thing as Zorg, and has been endlessly debated by ethics and economy students in the years since it was written.
2. Multiple actors are shared between The Fifth Element and the Alien franchise
It’s rare for two science fiction properties to develop links as close as those between The Fifth Element and Alien, especially by accident.
Several of the actors who play pivotal roles in The Fifth Element have also appeared at some point in the Alien series.
Most prominently, Ian Holm plays Father Vito Cornelius in The Fifth Element, the priest with whom Zorg shares his philosophy before choking on a cherry.
Holm also appears in 1979’s Alien as Ash, the Nostromo’s science officer who administers medical treatment to the crew and conducts biological research into the aliens.
What’s more, Al Matthews and Mac McDonald appear in The Fifth Element as General Tudor and one of the flying cops respectively.
Both actors also appear in 1986’s Aliens, while Christopher Fairbank also appears in both The Fifth Element and Alien³.
1. One scene was redubbed to include a RoboCop reference
Every genre has its conventions, whether it’s loose retellings of Arthurian myths and legends in fantasy, or love triangles between a girl, the boy next door and the bad boy in YA dystopia.
Therefore, it’s never too surprising when projects in the same genre share some similarities, even when they are purely aesthetic or superficial.
However, there are various different ways to deal with these accidental similarities, and The Fifth Element may have found the best one of all.
When editors of the film noticed that their futuristic cops were clad in a way that made them resemble 1987’s RoboCop, they simply leaned further into the comparison.
Instead of one police officer from an early scene saying “thank you for your help”, the line was redubbed to say “thank you for your cooperation”, in an obvious reference to the popular dystopian antihero.