Justifying My English Degree: Here’re Your Flying Cars: The Livable Future of “The Fifth Element”

I put up on my Facebook that I was trying to decide between doing this one or WarGames, and since both got some interest, I’ll likely give a young Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy the JMED treatment next.

THE TRAILER: (Note: It’s a fan trailer, but IMO it’s far better than the original)

THE FILM: The Fifth Element, Columbia-TriStar, 1997

PRINCIPAL ACTORS: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovavich, Gary Oldman

SYNOPSIS: In the colorful future, a cab driver unwittingly becomes the central figure in the search for a legendary cosmic weapon to keep Evil and Mr. Zorg at bay.


Writing about the future is one of the big reasons writers get into sci-fi, but there’s always a question of what kind of future is being shown. Which type is evident can always be discerned by asking a simple question: “Is the future existing as setting, or as commentary?” Shows such as Futurama do plenty with the latter, taking an aspect of our current culture and taking it to its slippery-slope-logical end in the year 3000 in order to let us know how ridiculous it is in retrospect. In fact, most futuristic sci-fi uses the setting to make commentary or serve as dire prophecy such as with 1984 or Brave New World, but that’s not what I plan to explore, as these points have been explored countless times by scholars and grad students and the turtles all the way down.

Instead, I wish to delve into the setting for the sake of setting, the future as backdrop instead of statement. When we see a future that’s there to advance the plot instead of hold up a picket sign, it seems that there are certain rules in place in order to keep from scaring off the audience or jarring them out of the movie. An excellent example of this is in Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, where people called “Revivals” (those who chose to cryogenically preserve themselves for decades or centuries) are faced with a drastically different future. A scene that underlines this shows the series character Mary, a once-photojournalist who’s recently revived and is mentally preparing herself for the future that awaits her outside the front door. One of the attendants in the scene is quick to tell her that the van is double-parked, and that term”double-parked” is clung to like a talisman as it’s one of the few things that’s innate and familiar: After god knows how long, in a future god knows how strange, vans at least can still be double parked. Granted, once she first beholds the vista of casual cannibalism, sex and drugs painted on everything that will stand still (and some things that don’t), and generally seeing a world running proudly on rampaging id, she understandably collapses into catatonia.

As much as many Transmet fans would assert repeatedly that they wouldn’t react in the same fashion, the point being made is that the future would often be far too jarring for a modern person to assimilate to easily. The future of The Fifth Element however follows a different mold. Instead of sex and violence, sexual drugs that can make you violent, and “re-de-re-de-re-deconstructionist” violent sex rock through the eyes of an eloquent shock jock (who seems to be into sex and violence for some reason), it’s instead like The Jetsons as it would actually happen. We keep the flying cars, they’re dirty and a little banged up sure, but we get flying cars damn it. We get the sky-high living arrangements, but they’re usually sky-high tenements where someone’s going to get stuck living in the fog layer. Your college dorm room was probably bigger than your apartment will be, but hey, instant mail and you can have Thai food delivered right to your window. Sure, there’re piles of garbage at the airport, but hey, interstellar travel to planet Hawaii and you’ll get to sleep through the whole trip there. Sure, it’s different, but it’s not too different and most importantly, it’s familiar.

It’s the familiarity that seems to be the most important, as watching a futuristic movie is often akin to visiting a foreign country.  Often when visiting another country, we seek out and cling to the familiar. Americans are often chided for traveling thousands of miles to visit a rich and complex culture only to get lunch at the nearest McDonald’s.  This is shown in the fan favorite taxi chase scene of The Fifth Element where even though the film takes place in New York City, it’s still the NYC of the 23rd century.

The first twenty seconds serve to set up a nice punchline later in the scene, but the choice is notable here simply for the sake of the audience. Yes, buildings are thousands of feet tall and cars fly in hundreds of choreographed lanes and everyone is generally dressed different, but look, you can still go to a McDonald’s for a Big Mac value meal (or Golden Menu as they call it here).  While it may seem like cheap corporate product placement (which let’s face it, it is), it serves a definite purpose in letting the audience know that yes, it’s different, but here’s a familiar place you can build assimilation from. Even in the 23rd century you can still get a Big Mac, fortune cookies with your Asian cuisine, smoke your cigarettes, and believe that the “one mile rule” still applies.  It’s seen in other movies as well, such as Back to the Future II assuring us we can still wear Nikes and get a Pepsi and that eventually the Cubs will win the World Series, or how Minority Report might terrify us with the idea of Pre-Crime, but lets us know we can still shop at the Gap, drive a Lexus, and shop with our AmEx card (though our right to privacy is essentially obliterated by corporations at that point).  Hell, even the new Star Trek tells us that Nokia and the Beastie Boys will survive the trip, if only in Iowa.

While it might be disappointing to some, it’s also important to one’s study of the craft to know one’s audience and what they’re willing to accept. The future itself in film making often picks a side regarding utopia or dystopia, but the more mundane futures are often the most likely, and the most easily discarded. After all, most would live in a paradise, or have a society it’s easy to wag a finger at with a definitive “I told you so”,  rather than see that two to three hundred years down the line we’re technologically more advanced, but that human nature hasn’t followed as strongly as hoped, that we’re still creative, ignorant, forthright, greedy, motivated and lazy. The future, after all, is supposed a nice place to visit, we shouldn’t want to live there.

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