“Let me preface this with some context; the movie was released in 1997 and is nearly 20 years old. If you can watch it today and think to yourself, “seemed like a regular movie to me” then that alone should at least give you some sort of context for just the quality of the movie it is and why it’s beloved.
“Many old movies that have been declared classics or have grown a beloved fanbase often have a joke associated to them: “I watched the movie and hated it. It was cliché after cliché after cliché.” The Fifth Element isn’t quite a magnum opus, but instead it falls into a niche area of film making that is extremely difficult to be successful with. The movie is as much a satire as it is a film of its own merit.
“The Fifth Element quite literally takes stereotypical archetypes of both character and genre to weave its own tapestry. Bruce Willis’s Korben Dallas is not the character you’re supposed to relate to, he’s the focus of the story, but he’s a caricature of his own Die Hard character John McClane. He’s intentionally overly masculine and emotionally distant. They literally shove that into your face at the beginning by showing the long list of weapons required for the mission on a cartoonish scroll falling from the general’s hand. They even joke about him being too emotionally distant in his apartment. The movie is almost force-feeding to the audience, “hey, he’s the overly macho hero”. Most movies aren’t as forceful about it, but this one does so intentionally which is why it comes across as annoying at first.
“Then they introduce the damsel in distress character, LeeLoo. She’s naked and scared and has no idea what is going on. As an audience, we don’t know what’s going on either so we’re in the same boat as her. She’s the character the audience is supposed to relate to because we don’t know anything other than who some people are and fragments of plot. As she learns, we learn. Her character is also intentionally annoying just like foreigners often are to natives.
“They then proceed to introduce Zorg as the evil villain as well as stereotypically dumb henchmen who don’t know enough to ask about the little red button. They even have the wise old man with his apprentice supposed to have the information to save everybody. Everything is cliché and standard to this point. You have the emotionally distant overly-masculine hero; the frail, scared, and emotionally unstable and weak damsel in distress requiring saving; the evil villain bent on destroying the world; and then the too dumb to get anything done henchmen to carry out everything. This is the model for nearly every action movie even to this day.
“Now let’s examine the genre the movie occupies, the space opera. One of the most popular space operas is Star Wars, but that franchise wasn’t first and there were many before it. The genre’s essentially set in outerspace, deals with campy romance, has advanced technology and weaponry. This is exactly what The Fifth Element is from the start.
“Then something really strange happens, the entire movie reveals itself as a satire of a space opera literally in the middle of a space opera as it turns into electronic vocals. From then on, every archetype is reversed. The overly masculine emotionally distant hero becomes the emotionally frail character. LeeLoo is revealed to be the overly masculine strong hero character. The wise old man and his apprentice really have no idea what’s going on. The hero and villain never, ever talk to each other, see each other, or really know about each other (aside from Korben being employed and fired by Zorg’s company at the beginning). The henchmen wind up being dumber than any henchmen before making them a complete joke as well, but at the same time unpredictable causing the villain’s plan to blow up in his face.
“The movie is beloved because it’s not just a good movie, but a great satire of an entire genre without becoming a joke of itself. Look at the first Scream movie as a counterexample. It lampooned slasher horror films for large laughs, but revealed itself as a hidden plot-based movie at the end by being a satire of not just slashers, but also crime-thrillers. While Scream hid within its jokes, The Fifth Element was the dancer on stage intentionally dancing horribly for half the show before showing the true grace and showcasing the technical difficultly it required for someone skilled to actually go against the skill to be that bad on stage.
“Beyond that, LeeLoo’s strong female character was highly praised and her quirks are highly quotable. Korban Dallas is largely forgettable because his character was primarily a meat popsicle stereotype. Chris Tucker just stole the show with his perfect performance of Ruby Rhod. It’s a really fun and enjoyable film and the fact it’s pushing 20 years and still holding strong amazes me.”