French filmmaker Luc Besson (Léon; La Femme Nikita) has always been known to make films heavier on style than substance and perhaps none of his films is more deserving of that description than Besson’s 1997 sci-fi action film The Fifth Element. With its colorful world of frenzied characters, hyperkinetic action sequences and Jean-Paul Gaultier, Element is more about looks, action, and special effects than it is about story, but it is still a wildly enjoyable ride.
It’s the 23rd Century and the Earth is in peril by a form of pure evil that comes around every 5,000 years to engulf it. The only thing that can save the world is a weapon formed by four stones representing the four classic elements, earth, wind, fire, and water, and a fifth element embodied in the form of a human (Milla Jovovich) that is in the care of an alien species known as the Mondoshawan.
A powerful businessman, Jean-Baptiste Emanuelle Zorg working with the evil to recover the hidden stones (Gary Oldman) hires a band of intergalactic outcasts and mercenaries to attack the Mondoshawan ship as they are bringing the Fifth Element to Earth’s forces. They are destroyed and only a small part of the Element’s body is recovered. She is then genetically reengineered, but she escapes from the military facility where she is being held.
That is when former Special Forces major turned cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) becomes entangled in the situation after the Fifth Element literally falls into his cab. With the police and the military chasing her, Korben decides to help her get to the priest, Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) who holds the secret of the stones and is sworn to protect it and the Fifth Element.
Together, they must make their way to a floating vacation city known as Fhloston Paradise where they will meet the one who has been protecting the stones so they can assemble the weapon to kill the evil bearing down on the Earth. The problem is, Zorg is after the stones and out to stop the Fifth Element.
Element is a frenzied romp of a film the hardly gives time for the story to sink in. It’s certainly fun, but it is marred by a particularly annoying performance by Chris Tucker who plays an interstellar radio show host who is supposedly a sex symbol. He’s meant to be funny, but he comes across as an annoying imitation of Prince on really bad day.
The special effects, though pale by today’s standards, still hold up well under scrutiny and Willis’ performance is perfectly smug, grizzled, and humorous. Milla Jovovich, sexy as always, plays a wonderful innocent yet somehow deadly and fragile “supreme being.” This is perfect cult-classic sci-fi material.
What a controversy this title stirred up upon its initial release in 2006. It was amongst the first batch of Blu-ray releases from Sony when the format first launched and as such it was expected to carry the burden and promise of what Blu-ray was capable of delivering. In short, Sony dropped the ball, not only with The Fifth Element, with quite a few of their initial releases. It seemed like many of the titles were rush jobs that weren’t transferred with the best of care and they were still using the old video codec MPEG-2, and Uncompressed PCM to deliver the audio. These last two points were really the least crucial part of the equation; lack of care in the transfer process is what did these titles in. The proof of that lies in many subsequent releases that year that also used MPEG-2 and PCM that looked quite good, such as Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, or the Japanese release of the anime title Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, which not only used a high bitrate MPEG-2 video encoding, but also had a 7.1 PCM soundtrack.
But, I digress, the original Blu-ray release of The Fifth Element was a bit of a mess — the source was dirty, the color reproduction was all over the place, and detail was soft. For a title that was heralded as a reference release on standard definition DVD, this was not acceptable and it certainly caused a lot of anti-BD folks to claim victory — prematurely, obviously. The embarrassment to Sony was such that it prompted the studio to remaster the title and initiate an exchange program for all those who had purchased the original release.
A year later, The Fifth Element (Remastered) was released, and the difference between the two versions is night and day. Remastered is clean, detailed and sharp, whereas the original release was plagued with source damage, murky looking, and soft. This remastered edition has excellent color reproduction that superbly shows off Besson’s vibrant palette and the wacky costumes from Jean-Paul Gaultier. Shadow detail is superb, black levels are deep, and flesh tones are incredibly natural.
For The Fifth Element (Remastered) Sony provided both the Uncompressed PCM 5.1 (48kHz/16-bit) mix that appeared on the original release and a new Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) encoding. Chances are that the 24-bit version has been up-sampled from the 16-bit source anyway, and one would be hard pressed to hear any differences between the two.
The mix is an aggressive one with lots of explosions, a tonne of ambience and discrete information in the surrounds, and, of course, gunfire whizzing through the room. Dialogue is clean, never lost in the tumult of the active scenes and bass is extended quite low, but the high frequencies are too tweaked and a little harsh. During the most intense action sequences, this becomes quite fatiguing, especially at higher volume levels.
The supplements on The Fifth Element are sparse — very sparse. There’s nothing more than a pop-up trivia track and two trailers for Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Underworld: Evolution, so this is hardly a value added release.
The Definitive Word
With this release began Sony’s redemption with the Blu-ray format and ever since they have had a pretty solid track record when it comes to the quality of their releases. The Fifth Element (Remastered) remains a reference quality release, even as newer, more advanced releases have come to market. It’s a fun release that should be on everyone’s shelf.
Additional Screen Captures