And this time, it occurred to me just how embedded in the ’90s that particular movie was.
Rachael likes to remind me that science fiction is always political; you take a concept, and you extrapolate the effects it’s going to have on the world (while also trying to predict unrelated trends like social changes). A progressive mindset expects the future to be better: technologies will be shinier, and bigotry will be a thing reduced and shoved away in favor of more egalitarian social systems. A conservative one might worry over the implications of innovations taking a turn for the worse (clearly these are very broad generalizations, and the optimism or cynicism of the writer may shift depending on the particular concept being explored).
As someone who leans really progressive, I like for my sci-fi to be optimistic in its social tone. Problems of discrimination that we’re facing now should be alleviated in a future setting. I’d like to see a story set three hundred years in the future where women are treated as men’s equals, and queerness isn’t something that needs to be explained away.
Can you guess how The Fifth Element does on that metric?
Yeah, not very well.
Now, before I start lambasting the movie, let me say up front that this is one of my favorite action films hands down. The set design is fun, the humor’s quirky, and the action scenes are really engaging (also, Gary Oldman, who’s really made a name for himself playing stoic, weary, old men, is just so watchable as the psychotic, Southern arms dealer Zorg). I really enjoy this movie; I just hadn’t watched it in a few years, and now a lot of the really problematic elements jumped out to me.
In no particular order:
- Leeloo is a human-shaped football who gets one good action scene before she gets shot and has to be rescued by Korben in time for the finale.
- All of the women’s fashion in the future revolves around the male gaze.
- Ruby Rhod is a character who’s highly flamboyant as part of his radio persona, but for no discernible reason other than to assure the audience that he’s not gay, he gets a sex scene with a female flight attendant.
- Leeloo and Korben’s romance is absurdly shallow; she doesn’t speak English for half of the film, and once she does, she and Korben hardly say a word to each other until the end where their love is supposed to be the catalyst to save Earth from the dark planet.
- Korben’s relationships with all women are highly fraught; he’s divorced, he doesn’t get along with his mother (whose phone calls are only used as a running gag), and his attraction to Leeloo never realistically develops beyond the physical (this is the great romance that saves the world, everyone).
None of these tropes are particularly unusual in action movies; it’s a genre that’s steeped in chauvinism. What’s weird here is that this is supposed to be a film about the future, but there’s no significant advancement in gender politics between the ’90s when the film was released and the 2260s when it’s set (if anything, the world depicted seems to be a regression of gender equality.
I know that part of this can simply be chalked up to the fact that futurism’s a crapshoot; sometimes it’s just impossible to predict what the social and technological landscape will look like in three years, let alone three centuries. The safe bet for producers of pop fiction (and let’s be honest, The Fifth Element is the poppiest fiction around) is to ground the world in a social scheme that’s recognizable to the audience. It’s just a shame here because this is just as much science fiction as it is popular fiction, and that means, as Rachael points out, that this movie is political even when it’s not trying to be.
I like The Fifth Element. I just don’t think it offers a vision of the future that’s worth aiming for.