Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Fifth Element: Superbit (1997)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - It Must Be Found.

Two hundred and fifty years in the future, life as we know it is threatened by the arrival of Evil. Only the fifth element (played by Milla Jovovich) can stop the Evil from extinguishing life, as it tries to do every five thousand years. She is helped by ex-soldier, current-cab-driver, Corben Dallas (played by Bruce Willis), who is, in turn, helped by Prince/Arsenio clone, Ruby Rohd. Unfortunately, Evil is being assisted by Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman), who seeks to profit from the chaos that Evil will bring, and his alien Mercenaries.

The Superbit™ Collection will set a new benchmark in high resolution DVD picture and sound, creating the ultimate in home entertainment. Superbit™ lets you use your existing DVD player to its maximum capacity!

Superbit™ DVDs utilize a special high bit rate digital transfer process that optimizes video quality and offers a choice of both DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. All Superbit™ DVDs start with high definition masters and double the bit rate of the original release.

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry
Nominated for Best Sound Effects Editing.
Box Office: Budget: $90 million. Opening Weekend: $17.031 million (2500 screens). Domestic Gross: $63.54 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & DTS 5.1; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 28 chapters; rated PG-13; 126 min.; $27.96; street date 10/9/01.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: Superbit DVD |Score soundtrack - Eric Serra

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/A-/F

Over the years Bruce Willis became pigeonholed as an action hero along the same lines as folks like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Yes, the man made a lot of action flicks. Starting with Die Hard in 1988, he starred in two sequels to that classic as well as a slew of more forgettable offerings such as 1991’s The Last Boy Scout and 1993’s Striking Distance.

However, Willis’ career really bears little resemblance to these other actors who appear in much more monotone works. A quick run-through of his résumé establishes the surprisingly daring choices he’s made over the years. From 1994’s Pulp Fiction to 1995’s 12 Monkeys to 1999’s The Sixth Sense, Willis has appeared in quite a few films that stand out from the norm.

Even when he took what seemed to be a conventional path, the truth sometimes was different. Take the first of his two 1997 releases, The Fifth Element. On the surface, this looked like just another brain-dead actioner, albeit one that used a science fiction motif. When examined, the plot seems pretty generic. Essentially an evil force is coming to Earth to annihilate all life. A special weapon called the Fifth Element can stop this, but some opposition stands in the way. As cab driver/former military stalwart Korben Dallas, Willis has to save the day.

That brief synopsis didn’t come from a conscious attempt by me to sum up the story quickly; that’s really about all you get in Element. No wonder the movie looked like it might be a silly clunker. However, the reality completely differed from the first impression, as Element offered one of the most entertaining and inventive sci-fi experiences I’ve seen in a long time.

Yes, the plot may be shopworn, but the execution lifted this sucker to a much higher level. As directed by Luc Besson - who also did the excellent action flick Leon - Element gleefully appropriates imagery from other films but somehow manages to make it all seem new and fresh. You’ll see many lifts from flicks like Star Wars and Blade Runner - some obvious, some not - as well as smaller nicks from a mix of additional movies. However, none of these felt like theft, as Besson clearly used them as a combination of homage and spoof. They existed as clever tips of the cap and made the experience seem all the more rich and vibrant without any hint of cheapness.

Really, Element is a wonderful example of how much can be done with thin material. Besson made the film such a fascinating cornucopia of styles and attitudes and played it off with such merry charm and slickness that it consistently entertained and delighted. Actually, I will admit the first half of the movie dragged a little at times. Don’t get me wrong; I thought that section worked well and had some good moments. However, during repeated viewings of the flick, I consistently felt a little uninvolved during the first hour or so. I enjoyed the material but it no longer grabbed me by the lapels.

That situation changed immensely in the movie’s second hour. Once all of the exposition and set-up were out of the way, Besson was able to really get into the action and have fun, and the second half of Element offered a nearly-nonstop thrill ride packed with great action, funny material and even some touching interludes. The romance between Dallas and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) - the Fifth Element - stayed in the backseat for the most part, and some parts of it felt a little forced, but when push came to shove, I bought it and thought it worked.

Part of the responsibility for the success came from the actors. On occasion, I will admit that Willis seemed miscast as Dallas. Every once in a while I thought it seemed like he was in a different movie than everyone else; his tough guy action star vibe didn’t always mesh with the piece. However, he integrated well enough into the material to make most of these issues moot, and he offered a strong and heroic presence that the story needed; we must believe that Korben has the power within him to save the universe, so it was better that Besson chose a rough character with a lighter side than tried to make a more loose and comic performer seem tough.

Jovovich comes from the modeling world, and I will admit I’ve often been skeptical of her talents. However, she consistently provides good performances in her films, and I really liked her work as Leeloo. Jovovich managed to keep the part from becoming excessively silly or comic, but she also had a lot of fun when appropriate; I still get a chuckle out of her incessant repetitions of the phrase “multipass”. Jovovich provided a solid action presence when necessary as well; she pulled off her fight scenes with aplomb. Personally, I don’t consider her attractive enough to consider her as “perfect”, but she did very well in this role.

As usual, Gary Oldman neatly immersed himself into the role as the film’s human villain Korg. With a vaguely Hitler-esque hairstyle and an incongruous Southern accent, Oldman hammed up his scenes just enough to make Korg broad and memorable without coming across as an insignificant goof. Korg seem just ruthless and vicious enough; yeah, he was a caricature, but that sort of performance made perfect sense in this film, and Oldman provided a memorable piece of work.

Unquestionably the most controversial aspect of Element stemmed from Chris Tucker’s over-the-top acting as deejay Ruby Rhod. We don’t really meet Rhod until the movie’s third act; we saw a little of him in some earlier ads, but the character didn’t formally enter until much later. Many folks love Element except for Tucker; they find his performance to be out of place and absurd.

Well, yeah - that was the point. Frankly, I’m not sure I understand how anyone could like the rest of Element but hate Ruby Rhod. The character fit in so perfectly with the wild and maniacal tone of the rest of the movie that I never understood the complaints. From the first time I saw the film, I thought Tucker was a riot; he seemed so ridiculously obnoxious and annoying that I instantly liked him. Rhod continues to offer some of my favorite parts of the movie, and I never felt as though he didn’t belong; the tone of the flick perfectly matched his frantic efforts, and I thought Tucker meshed nicely.

Really, I found very little to dislike about The Fifth Element. Before I screened the DVD for this review, I hadn’t seen the flick in a few years, but I enjoyed it just as much now as I did in the past. In addition, I had to watch Element twice within a short period of time; I checked out the original DVD not long before I viewed this new release. I expected to feel bored and want to skip large chunks; after all, I’ve seen the movie five or six times, and with the last examination being so recent I didn’t think I’d be very entertained. I went through the same process with the original and the Superbit releases of Air Force One and wasn’t too excited the second time.

However, Air Force One offered a fairly superficial experience; while it was a good action flick, what you saw was what you got, with virtually nothing to dig up from beneath the surface. The same wasn’t true for The Fifth Element. Besson packed the screen with so many fascinating visual elements and other bits that I always find something new when I watch it. Each subsequent viewing gives me another great moment onto which I can latch, such as the hilarious way in which Right Arm (Tricky) impersonates Korben; it’s a tiny bit, but I thought it was terrific. The Fifth Element teemed with such pieces, and it offered a truly fun and entertaining flick that I think will continue to look good for years to come.

Inane trivia note: Gary Oldman appears in Air Force One and The Fifth Element, both of which came out within months of each other. In both flicks, a character refers to him as a monster. I’d love to know if this was simply coincidental; I suspect it was, but who knows?

The DVD:

The Fifth Element appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This disc represents the second DVD release of Element. The original came out almost four years ago, back when the format hadn’t even celebrated its first birthday. It crammed both fullscreen and widescreen versions of the movie onto one double-sided disc, but somehow it still managed to offer very satisfying picture and sound.

However, apparently the good folks at Columbia-Tristar (CTS) thought they could improve upon this presentation. As such, Element - as well as some other films - has been reissued as part of their “Superbit” collection. According to the booklet that accompanied the DVD, this line offers “the highest standard for picture and sound available on DVD” with “higher bit rate for better picture resolution than standard DVD”.

Those are some lofty goals - will the DVDs reach them? After all, Element already looked very good. Indeed, many have long regarded it as one of the format’s true “demo discs”. I recently rewatched it in preparation for this review, and I thought that though it’s not still one of the absolute best, it remains very solid.

As such, it was going to be difficult for the Superbit version of The Fifth Element to improve upon the original DVD. Ultimately, I thought the Superbit release did provide a more solid viewing experience, but not by a tremendous amount.

Sharpness looked excellent throughout the film. At no time did I discern any sign of softness or fuzziness. The image remained crisp and distinct at all times. I noticed no jagged edges or moiré effects, but I did witness a smidgen of edge enhancement in a few shots. Print flaws remained consistently insignificant. The movie showed a few speckles and a little grit, and it also displayed one or two streaks and scratches. Nonetheless, the majority of the film seemed clean and fresh.

Colors offered a highlight of Element. The movie featured a wonderfully broad and varied palette, and the hues consistently seemed vibrant and lively. I’d like to recommend a particular section, but the whole movie was a delight in that regard; colors always came across as truly dazzling. Black levels appeared to be deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed clear with appropriate density; low-light situations demonstrated good definition.

Thanks to the magic of cutting and pasting, the comments above almost exactly replicated what I said about the original DVD of Element. The only alteration I made was to omit a remark about some minor moiré effects visible in the old disc; the new one lacked any signs of such shimmering. Otherwise, my text remained the same. So why did I feel that the Superbit disc deserved the minor jump from an “A-“ to an “A” for picture quality?

This was due to intangibles, honestly. I can’t say that “scene ‘X’ looked seven percent sharper on the new DVD” or any other statistical nonsense; I simply felt that the new disc provided a tighter presentation. Though terrific on the old release, colors looked a little more vibrant, and the entire image seemed more three-dimensional across the board. It was a smoother appearance that more closely approached the ever-elusive ideal of a “film-like” presentation.

I liked the picture of the original disc and thought it looked very good, but I was truly dazzled by much of what I saw on the Superbit DVD. Were it not for some of the niggling flaws that carried over from the old one - since this appeared to be the same transfer - the Superbit Element would have earned an “A+”, whereas I never felt that strongly about the 1997 release.

Remember that little booklet I stated the DVD included to explain the Superbit line? It provided a little graphic that compared the space distribution on a “standard” DVD and on a Superbit disc. Interestingly, we see that though the picture area jumped way up, the amount allowed for sound actually decreased. It was a slight drop, and I doubt that this simple image totally explains the distribution for all of the discs, but it was a telling sight. Even though the Superbit discs add DTS 5.1 sound to their original Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, they get less space in which to make it work.

How did this translate to the actual auditory experience of The Fifth Element? With a mix that seemed very similar to the one heard on the old Element DVD. As befits a big action/sci-fi flick such as this, the soundfield provided an extremely active and engaging setting. All five channels received a solid workout, but the track never seemed to offer any gratuitous audio; the various elements existed to create a vivid and engrossing whole. Music showed fine stereo separation across the front speakers and also cropped up with good support from the rear.

Effects really made the mix work, however. All of these elements came from appropriate locations in the soundfield, and they blended together very nicely. Sounds moved cleanly across speakers as they created a very believable environment. This included the surrounds, which actively supported the forward spectrum. A tremendous amount of unique audio came from the rears, and it all meshed together neatly. Overall, this was a well-made soundfield that offered a fine listening experience.

For the most part, audio quality seemed to be strong, but a few lapses occurred. Although much of the dialogue needed to be looped, it usually sounded natural and distinct. No problems with intelligibility occurred, but some edginess interfered at times, particularly during the battle scenes on Fhloston’s Paradise. Those segments caused the most concerns across the board, as they consistently displayed some minor distortion for the effects as well. A little additional roughness could be heard a few times during the rest of the film, but this remained acceptably modest and didn’t significantly interfere with the audio.

The track presented some nicely bright and dynamic music. The score seemed to be well reproduced, as the mix made it sound clear and vibrant at all times. Bass response appeared very solid across the board. Not only did the music sound rich and full, but also the effects displayed excellent low-end when appropriate. Some of this movie will really shake the walls, and the bass always remained tight and concise. All in all, The Fifth Element provided a fine soundtrack that got downgraded to an “A-“ due simply to some minor distortion.

Once again, cutting and pasting was my friend, for the comments above duplicated what I wrote in my review of the original DVD. They offered an exact replication, actually, with no small alterations akin to those found in my updated remarks about the picture quality. I won’t deny that there may have been some differences between the audio heard on the new DVD and on the original, but the two sounded identical to me. All of the same highs and lows appeared, and that included the minor distortion; those elements seemed to be part of the source material, and no new DVD format or anything else will change that.

I also heard virtually no differences between the Dolby Digital and DTS mixes. Sometimes DTS tracks offer stronger bass response or a greater transparency to their soundfields, but I detected no such variations. Both soundtracks seemed to be very strong, and they offered solid auditory experiences. The Fifth Element provided a great mix on the original DVD, and the Superbit version continued that high standard.

Another area of consistency related to the extras found on the DVDs. The old one offered virtually no extras, and the Superbit DVD maintained the same lack of supplements. The only difference stemmed from the DVD’s booklet. The original had a small piece that included a short blurb about the flick, some laudatory one-liners from critics, and a few photos; it was nothing special, to say the least, but oddly it failed to make the cut here. Instead, the package tossed in a simple one-sheet with chapter listings and a single shot of the cover art.

Note that the Superbit Element also lacked any kind of interesting animation or pictures in its menus. Frankly, this seemed weird as well. The original disc just had a still photo of the cover art as the main menu’s backdrop; would it have taken all that much disc space to include it again? And was there not room enough to list little text identifiers for the various chapters in the “Scene Selections” menu? Whereas the old one provided comments like “On a Ledge” and “Art Dealer”, this one just lists numbers. Granted, the DVD’s insert card gives us descriptions, but these would be much more convenient on the disc itself. They still found the room for animated CTS and Superbit introductions at the start of the disc, and the DTS trailer also appears before the start of the film if that mode is selected, so it’s not like this DVD dropped all of these sorts of things.

One note about the DVD’s packaging: The Fifth Element comes in a nice silver-colored slipcase that prominently features the “Superbit” logo. However, the art provided on the case itself almost exactly reproduced that of the original DVD. The front cover looked identical, while the back differed only because of the alteration of features and specs, plus it lost the UPC, since that’s on the slipcase. The spines also differ; the old one had some small pictures, whereas the new package just lists the movie’s name. It seems odd that they barely altered the artwork; I guess they figure no copies will be on shelves without the slipcase. If you do see Element on its own, you may want to check the back to ensure you find the version you want; some stores that sell used DVDs may lack the slipcase, so this would be the easiest way to verify the version you get.

After four years and a bunch of screenings, I continue to find The Fifth Element to provide a funny, exciting and lively experience. The movie packed in more inventiveness than 10 standard flicks combined, and it did so with flair, panache, and class. The DVD offered almost flawless picture plus an excellent soundtrack, but it lacked any extras.

In regard to my recommendation, I run into some trouble. Objectively, the Superbit edition of The Fifth Element surpasses the old one, as it offers a stronger visual presentation. If I didn’t own a copy and I wanted one, I’d prefer to have the Superbit version. However, that release lists for $8 more than does original, and the latter will be more easily available through used DVD outlets, which could also save folks some money. Is the Superbit version worth the extra bucks? For those who want the absolute best, yes, but otherwise, I think the two are similar enough to not warrant additional expenditure.

The situation becomes more complicated for current owners of the old DVD. Would I want to spend an extra $25 or so to get this new disc? Probably not, for the differences remain so minor. Nonetheless, those who desire the strongest visual presentation of the film will have to consider it. The Superbit edition of The Fifth Element doesn’t blow away the old one, but the improvements exist, and they make it the best version of the movie available.

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