The Fifth Element: I could get a refund, but I'll never get my two hours back.

The only proper analogy I can think of for the experience of watching "The Fifth Element" is of being locked into a small room with several very good-looking but mind-bendingly stupid people who are screaming at the top of their lungs at each other. For two hours straight.

Make no mistake: "T5E" is very pretty, very loud, and VERY stupid. The post-release publicity for the film made a great deal of hay out of the fact that the film's story, by director Luc Besson, was one that he had dreamed up when he was a 14-year-old boy. Unfortunatly, that appears to have been literally true, and Besson apparently did not feel the need to edit or update the plot or dialogue in the intervening decades. Once you strip away the (admittedly stunning) visual effects and set design, you are left with the sort of script that you can very easily imagine a 7th-grader writing after seeing "Star Wars" for the first time.

Virtually no sci fi movie cliche is left untouched, and it's all presented with Deep Earnest Seriousness. There's the grizzled, Han Solo-esque hero (Bruce Willis, faxing in his performance from whatever island vacation this paycheck bought him), check. There's the Beautiful Alien Princess (Milla Jovavich, trying hard but failing to distract from her near-nudity with strenuous overacting), check. There's the Obi-Wan-esque doddering mentor (Ian Holm, looking properly embarrassed about the whole thing), check. There's the Goofy Black Sidekick (Chris Tucker, channelling Liberace, Superfly and Stepin Fetchit simultaneously, an achievement that's jawdropping for all of the wrong reasons), check. Maniacal villian? Sure, Besson has Gary Oldman's number on his speed-dial for that part, check. Unstoppable alien menace? Check. Love conquers all in the end? Stop, that was a rhetorical question. (But the film insists on answering it.)

Apologists for this film insist that it wasn't meant to be taken seriously, which would be to mistake narrative laziness for intentional satire even if it didn't reek of post-debacle spin. It's quite possible to tell a feather-light and even silly story without insulting your audience at every turn, a task accomplished by films as diverse as "Babe", "There's Something About Mary", and even "Star Wars", which T5E apes shamelessly without ever displaying any awareness about why it worked as a film.

Just about the only redeeming factors in The Fifth Element are the stunning visual effects by Digital Domain, and the gleefully outre costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier. But they in no way make up for the cringeworthy dialogue, the terrible acting, the overbearing soundtrack and the stunningly contrived plot. About the only way to derive any real enjoyment out of this film is to turn the volume down to zero, and at that point why bother?

(21 May 2001)