Retro Nostalgia: The Fifth Element (1997) and the Legacy of Camp


The Fifth Element is one of those films that the genre community loves not because it is a good film, but because it’s actually pretty awful, and intentionally so.  At least, that’s how I interpret it.  It has always seemed like a film that deliberately sought out science fiction’s pension for high-flying, mythological fantasy (in space).  In some sense, it’s the opposite of Starships Troopers, released in the same year.  Both films are satires:  Starship Troopers a more socio-political satire of the military industrial complex, and The Fifth Element a satire of genre — or what I call the  “legacy of camp.”

What amuses me about The Fifth Element is how easily it manipulates genre conventions to produce a narrative that functions in part through humorous hyperbole, and yet never needs to make a whole lot of sense.  The central premise, for those that don’t know or only vaguely remember, is much like any Doctor Who season finale:  some kind of evil, ancient alien force appears out of nowhere (in the form of a planet that gobbles up aggressive energy, like missiles, to increase its size), and the only one who can stop it is a genetically engineered messiah (Leeloo, played by Milla Jovovich) and an ex-soldier.  Of course, there are lots of obstacles in the way:  an inept human government/military, an evil corporate loon with the weirdest hairdo in history (Gary Oldman), some evil mercenary space orcs, and a couple of socially awkward priests.  Let’s also not forget that one of the most important scenes in the entire movie is an opera/faux-future-pop mashup laid over Leeloo’s comical smackdown of those absurd space orcs.  And did I mention that the music in said scene is performed by a blue alien diva with tentacles?  Yeah.

The plot is eccentric enough — and ever so genre — but the film’s technological imagination is where the nonsensical really shines.  Take, for example, the main city:  hover cars are everywhere, despite societal evidence that this would be a complete disaster; Chinese restaurants deliver in person, flying around in makeshift sailing ships; Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has enough high-powered rifles to make even an NRA activist scared (and apparently he’s not the only one); and homes are equipped with self-cleaning showers and other gadgets that would make Bill Gates wet himself.  Elsewhere, we’re to believe that scientists can reconstruct any biological being from a handful of cells; luxury cruise ships roam the stars undefended, while mercenaries destroy everything they’re paid to eliminate; and aliens of unimaginable cleverness (who made Leeloo) are so inept at protecting their own ships that their destruction becomes a convenient plot device.  It’s the kind of movie that, if it took itself seriously, would fall apart the moment someone started to think about it all.

But The Fifth Element doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s camp through and through.  The acting is overboard, right down to a somewhat dumbfounded Tommy Lister playing President of, well, everything and Gary Oldman pulling out all the stops as the ridiculous Zorg, weird hairdo, accent, and all.  It’s as if the creators sat down one day and said, “How can we make this movie so ridiculous it’s actually entertaining?”  And it’s that willingness to embrace the campy side of SF that makes The Fifth Element one of those rare humorous gems, memorable not for being a gamestopper like 2001:  A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner, but for being that absurd movie we can all watch and love together.  It never needed to be a good movie.  It only ever needed to be that right mixture of camp and humor (a skill Joss Whedon has learned to master quite well).

This is where I have to wonder:  What other films do the same thing?  Do they work as well as The Fifth Element?  Why or why not?


Retro Nostalgia is the product of my compulsive re-watching of classic and/or quality science fiction and fantasy films (and their related components).  In each feature, I’ll cover some element of a particular film that interests me, sometimes from an academic perspective and other times as a simple fan.  Previous columns can be easily found via the “Movie Rants” label.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Retro Nostalgia: The Fifth Element (1997) and the Legacy of Camp

  1. Buckeroo Banzai is one. Phantom of the Paradise is another. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again). All of them dare the viewer to scrutinize their logic while entertaining with all guns blazing.

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