Marion Grau, Professor of Theology at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, makes her first (and hopefully not last!) contribution to Pop Theology on the cult classic, The Fifth Element. Check it out after the jump. Thanks Marion!
The eponymous title Fifth Element refers to a human-shaped divine being that has the power to unite the forces of the four elements, water, air, earth and fire, to save the earth and its human inhabitants from an evil that returns every 500 years.
When Luc Besson created what was to become a cult movie in The Fifth Element (1997), he crafted a narrative suffused with Christian motifs and story lines. Themes of messianism, savior figures, the purpose of saving a self-destructive humanity, and the cooperation between the divine and human for salvation abound. This set of images is connected to the global tradition of the four elements united by a fifth, a quintessence that brings them into alignment for powerful transformation. Here, the Fifth Element is a periodically returning divine being–here powerfully and erotically female–with the power to save humanity from destruction by an evil force every five hundred years, when evil returns to destroy humanity. At the same time, humans destroy each other.
The movie begins with a shot of the earth in universe, a ship of alien guardians of humanity on its way to earth to intercept a an archaeologist perched to uncover the truth about the function of the temple wall writings he is trying to decipher: “Four elements gather around a fifth, together produce the light of creation. But if evil stands there, then light turns to dark, life to death, forever.” The year is 1914, the time before the Great War, and this war is the reason an alien race removes the four elemental stones and the capsule of the Fifth element from earth, promising to return to aid human survival when evil returns.
But on its return, the saving force of the Fifth Element is intercepted and destroyed. Human military technology restores it to enfleshed life. Not knowing what they have just unleashed, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), the Fifth Element, escapes and enlists Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), an ex-soldier now cab-flyer, to find the priests and stones to do her job of saving the earth.
As evil returns this time, it manifests as Mr. Shadow, a force that thrives on resistance in a way that renders observably real the observation that “evil begets evil.” When the earth government tries to attack the destructive clot of evil hurtling for earth to destroy it, the hereditary “priests” that preserve the knowledge about the Fifth Element warn the government that shooting missiles at the destructive planet like fireballs will only increase its power, admonishing and reminding us about the ambivalence and futility of warfare intended to “pacify.” Evil feeds on being fought. The hatred and aggression it is met with actually makes it stronger.
In the end, only love, that is a conversion of emotional energy, can keep evil from feeding and destroying earth. Luc Besson’s campy classic features a classic scene with an alien diva with uncommon singing ranges who plays her part in redemption by keeping the elements hidden within her own belly. As she dies, the Diva reveals to Korben the fragility of the Fifth Element: “She is more fragile than she seems. She needs your help and your love, or she will die.” This is a redemption that needs cooperation in a number of ways. In a distant riff on a failed virgin birth, Dallas has to rip the stones representing the four elements from within the diva’s body.
The film blends styles, genres, and narratives with compelling ease and fluidity. The costumes are done by no less renowned a fashion designer than Jean-Paul Gaultier, outrageous, crazy, and imitation-inspiring as party-goers create their own version of the show’s costumes. The religio-theological themes frame the narrative, but fade back into the background to loosely hold together slapstick, comic fights, monstrous weapons, and an understated but careful critique of destructive economic oppression. Zorg, Gary Oldman‘s evil character, is a tycoon who owns and profits from much in this world and is in cahoots with Mr. Shadow trying to intercept the stones and destroy the Fifth Element.
This is one of a number of sci-fi movies that prepared viewers for imagining a black president, one who does not escape a tonguelashing by Korben Dallas’ mother while Chris Tucker‘s genderbending futuristic show-host covers much of the camp factors of the movie. The subtle but present heteronormativity of the final shot where human and divine, male and female come together to consume the love that ultimately saves the world, but also seals up the flickers of queerness throughout, overshadows the currents of gender-bending and shapeshifting somewhat unsatisfyingly. But the movie does work with heteronormative complementarity: Leeloo needs help in this plot for redemption, and it is heterosexual love that gets the message through to her: “Love is worth saving.” Leeloo, “built to protect, not to love,” only knows “how to protect, not how to love.” It is Korben’s confession of need and of love that breaks through her despair and loneliness. In the end, one can say that what brings the elements into balance is love. Love is worth saving. Love saves. The balance of the elements is in need of love, it is a co-creative, co-salvific becoming. Just in the nick of time to avert complete destruction, yet not without a sense that this does not solve the problem of human violence, and only temporarily averts a particularly acute threat.