As the Fifth Element Turns 20, We Ask Why it Was Such a Divisive Movie

Why did The Fifth Element fail to convince the critics, though, despite pulling in the big bucks ($263 million) at the cinema, and does it really deserve to go down in movie history as a critical failure?

20 years ago or so, the 1990s were in full swing. Away from film, we had the joys of yo-yos, the explosion of MTV, and the emergence of the Harry Potter books. On the big screen, though, things were starting to get pretty special. The Matrix (1999) brought sci-fi movies into a brand new era, ending a decade that began with Terminator 2 (1991), a film which proved that a sequel can create an engaging and incredible storyline.

In the middle of all of this, we had some great fun with the ridiculousness of Mars Attacks (1996) and we saw Will Smith at his peak as an action hero in Independence Day (1996), a film that cost $75 million to create and one which grossed over $800 million at the cinema.

Against the backdrop of these amazing movies stood one big budget blockbuster that failed to reach the same lofty heights of critical acclaim: 1997’s The Fifth Element. Why did The Fifth Element fail to convince the critics, though, despite pulling in the big bucks ($263 million) at the cinema, and does it really deserve to go down in movie history as a critical failure?

Gone and Forgotten or Saved by Not Being Conventional?

Another critical failure from the 1990s, Judge Dredd, has managed to come back with a bang after an excellent reboot in 2012 that showed precisely how to make an incredible gritty sci-fi film (it even had enough success for us to see a new Dredd TV show green light) but the same cannot be said for The Fifth Element, which has been released on Ultra HD 4k to a pretty limited fanfare to mark its 20th anniversary.

Should it have been granted more of a fanfare, though? Well, perhaps so. Arguably, The Fifth Element was a truly groundbreaking movie. The movie’s themes broke away from the standard Hollywood ideas of the norm and introduced ahead-of-its-time notions of gender fluidity alongside a very unconventional lead character.

That said, even this point is up for debate; discussions run amuck online as to whether the movie tried to build a name for itself on the appearance of being different but actually deep down still relying upon very traditional ideas. The element of differentiation, at least in the eyes of the public, has certainly helped to keep the film relevant though, allowing it to achieve the relatively solid score of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as 7.7/10 from IMDB. What it perhaps didn’t do, though, was create a film that was a truly engaging sci-fi in a competitive genre.

Are Appearances Everything?

Dressing characters in provocative outfits from the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier might well help to create a more visually appealing movie, but sci-fi characters require depth and this is where the film really falls flat from a critical point of view. In contrast to how he failed to create an engaging script for The Fifth Element, director Luc Besson showed the movie world that he can use a strong lead character who isn’t the ‘normal’ hero stereotype with the engaging script from his more recent movie Lucy (2014). In Lucy, which grossed over $463 million, 11 times the budget of $40million that it cost to make the movie, Besson showed how he can use a star name to enhance a film, with Scarlett Johansson pulling off a superb display. This is something that Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element largely failed to do.

Perhaps the key to understanding the difference in acclaim between these two films can be highlighted by looking at the Variety review of the film from 1997, where the film is ripped apart courtesy of a large amount of criticism focusing on the script and the poor quality décor of the set. This review was one of the most brutal around, but there is no getting away from the fact that the film could have benefitted from a more decisive décor that could have really embraced its surreal nature.

A Failure to Roll the Dice?

Given the film’s financial success, it seems strange to be debating what more it could have done to make it a more memorable, long-lasting and, importantly, crucially well-received movie, but it is hard to argue against the fact that an inability to embrace the wacky potential of sci-fi held it back in this regard.

An ability to embrace the wild and wacky in the genre has been highlighted to brilliant effect by another European sci-fi creation that has had huge success around the world: Doctor Who. With the Doctor about to move with the times and be acted by a female actor for the first time, the more wacky and surreal elements of Doctor Who like the Cybermen and the Daleks have helped to keep the TV show relevant to generation after generation of viewer.

The ‘trashy’ futuristic vision of The Fifth Element appealed to some, but parts of the movie could have gone much further, perhaps by building upon the tropical cruise ship which resembled a casino. The futuristic Las Vegas gambling element has been identified by Betway Casino as a means through which to capture viewers’ imaginations (see also Ocean’s Eleven, and the hugely successful Hangover franchise, which amassed over a billion dollars worldwide) and The Fifth Element might have had more success in getting viewers to buy into the director’s vision of the future had the rest of the film been more over the top and a bit more bizarre, two things the likes of The Hangover did very well.

Whatever the views of current critics, The Fifth Element should be happy with its modern day cult following. It certainly won’t be remembered as the greatest film of the 1990s, but it may not be entirely fair to brand it a failure; the film just lacked enough conviction to embrace the surreal, futuristic vision that it tried to present.

Content Credits & Sources

Ian Cullen is the founder of and has been a fan of science fiction and fantasy from birth. In the past few years he has written for 'Star Trek' Magazine as well as interviewed numerous comics writers, television producers and actors for the SFP-NOW podcast at: When he is not writing for Ian enjoys playing his guitar, studying music, watching movies and reading his comics. Ian is both the founder and owner of You can contact ian at:
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