The Fifth Element and the Death of the Functional Movie Future

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The Fifth Element, released back in 1997, was a kind of anti-Blade Runner. Where the latter was relentlessly grim and dark, alleviated only by Ridley Scott’s superlative visual flourish, The Fifth Element was bright and colourful. They both represented the future as a crowded, suffocating place touched with the malice of overbearing law enforcement, but unlike Blade Runner Luc Besson’s film saw the days to come as still worthy of optimism, and it is full of scenes, like the mobile noodle shop, cigarettes with much longer filters, and the to-home delivery pipes that show the world working much as it would now, except with greater verticality, more flying cars, and better gadgets.

But the two shared one very important, er, element. The protagonists weren’t fighting to save the society from itself. Harsh and difficult as the Los Angeles of 2019 seemed, it wasn’t troubled by one overriding dystopian problem which, if removed, would solve the city’s problems. The future metropolis Bruce Willis fights to save is in and of itself mostly fine – the threat is almost entirely external. The two films therefore showed us fully functioning worlds that were in their own ways simply extensions of today’s existence, not what-if scenarios predicated on the realisation of Bradburyian or Mathesonian themes.

Almost all major sci-fi films about the future since The Fifth Element have featured an inherent doomsday scenario which has either already taken place or was likely if something was not done about it. V For Vendetta and The Hunger Games were about overthrowing totalitarian regimes; in I Am Legend and Wall-E, the world is already overrun by zombies and garbage, respectively; District 9 is more an alternate history rather than a contiguous future; and Avatar took place off-world. Children of Men offered some tantalising glimpses of the general society facing its collective mortality, but it was one that was headed for certain doom and required a biological salvation which Clive Owen’s protagonists aids, symbolically rather than conclusively. In none of these films did the camera really pull back and show us the entire city functioning as a possible extension of our present, no matter how unlikely.

The one film that comes closest is Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, released in 2002. It’s probably the most visually influential sci-fi movie of the past 15 years: the washed out, neo-retro palette would be replicated by everything from I, Robot and The Island to Source Code and Star Trek, not to mention countless B-movies. More to the point, it’s a rare film about the future in which the future society isn’t looking down the barrel of the dystopian gun. The prevention of crime through pre-cogs presents a moral and ethical dilemma, but the survival of Washington D.C. depends neither on the pre-cogs’ existence or their eradication. It’s another functioning movie future, made of recognisable developments from our current way of life.

So why aren’t there more films with functioning futures that could be liveable, if not desirable? Surely there’s room for a film like The Fifth Element, which took delight in picturing what it would be like if our world continued down a less drastically pessimistic path, alongside the repressive dictatorships and the drying of natural resources and the critical failures in social/physical equilibrium. Some of the greatest films of all time are about dystopias, but that doesn’t mean our future should always equate to living hells, where the end is right around the corner.

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