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Blu-Ray : One to Avoid
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Release Date: June 20th, 2006 Movie Release Year: 1996

The Fifth Element (Discontinued)

Overview -

Did I pick the wrong movie for my first Blu-ray review? As any self-respecting tech-geek knows, the first disc you choose to fire up in a new format can be akin to a religious experience. I can still vividly recall all of my "firsts" -- the first LP I ever bought, the first CD, the first VHS tape, the first Laserdisc, and (of course) my first DVD. So it goes now with Blu-ray. And coming only a mere two months after the launch of HD DVD, it has been a bit of an embarrassment of riches -- when was the last time two major new consumer electronics formats launched so close together?

Anyway, for my inaugural Blu-ray experience, I went with 'The Fifth Element.' Not, honestly, because I love the movie, but because it has long been regarded as one of the finest-looking standard DVDs out there. So I figured the Blu-ray version must be a home run, right? Well, not so fast. Unfortunately, as you'll find out later on down in the video section, this one didn't quite meet my expectations. So I apologize upfront that what may be the first Blu-ray disc review you read won't be an unequivocal, five-star rave. That said, this is only one of many, many Blu-ray titles to come, and we all know you can't judge a new format just by one disc.

One to Avoid
Rating Breakdown
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Region A
Video Resolution/Codec:
480i/MPEG2 (Supplements Only)
Aspect Ratio(s):
2.35:1 Widescreen
Audio Formats:
French 5.1 Dolby Surround
Thai Subtitles
Special Features:
Trivia Fact Track
Release Date:
June 20th, 2006

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take


So, how's 'The Fifth Element' as a movie? Well, I've always had mixed feelings about the films of French auteur Luc Besson. He's certainly audacious, with a bravura visual style, a vigorous sense of pacing and seemingly no fear when it comes to engaging in narrative flights of fancy. Yet many of his films have felt a bit disjointed to me, as if all the cinematic razzmatazz is more important to Besson than the story he is trying to tell. Of all his films, I may feel this most acutely with 'The Fifth Element.'

The plot itself is classic goofy sci-fi, although perhaps the story is besides the point. As 'The Fifth Element' begins, we learn that four stones were taken from Earth in 1914 by a race of giant mechanical turtle-like creatures called the Mondoshawan in order to keep humankind safe from evil. Fast-forward 300 years and as the Mondoshawan are returning to Earth, they are attacked by a group of mercenary dog men, the Mangalores, which leaves our planet defenseless. But out of the wreckage of battle, scientists are able to salvage a claw that they use to regenerate a new "perfect being," called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). Too bad she escapes from the lab, and crash lands on the hood of cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), who is soon thrust into a sort of treasure hunt to save all mankind.

To be honest, despite repeated viewings, I've often had absolutely no idea what was going on during a lot of 'The Fifth Element.' Like 'Blade Runner' meets 'Xanadu' meets 'The Apple' (only even more outlandish), this is one loud, colorful, pop tart of a movie. The plot is so crazy and convoluted, that missing 30 seconds of it is the equivalent of missing 30 minutes of another movie. Certainly, many sci-fi fans love this fact -- Besson wisely hints at a larger mythology, which gives the world he creates a life outside of just the visuals. But it also makes it hard to take any of the film all that seriously -- it's all so day-glo-tastic, and the cast is so clearly having such a good time chewing the scenery that ultimately there seems to be little at stake, aside from the ballooning costume budget.

Oh, did I mention who else is in this movie? Simultaneously amusing and obnoxious is a pre-'Rush Hour' Chris Tucker, who as DJ Ruby Rhod seems to be channeling Prince and that guy from the 'Mannequin' movies. Then there is Ian Holm as Vito Cornelius, a member of an eternal line of clerics (don't ask). Normally a very serious actor, even Holm looks like he is struggling to keep a straight face during most of the movie. And who can forget Gary Oldman as the freaky arms merchant Zorg? It is saying something that of all the actors here, he might actually be the most restrained, even in the ridiculous get-ups he's asked to wear (all designed by Madonna favorite Jean-Paul Gaultier, of course).

'The Fifth Element' is a film that's loved by some, and hated by others. Although I've never, ever bought a single second of it, I have to say that I enjoy the film myself. As hard as it may be to follow, Besson certainly creates a film with an unquestionably unique cinematic sensibility. If you're in the mood for one big, bright, colorful explosion of a movie, look no further than 'The Fifth Element.'

Video Review


Okay, here it comes -- the big question. Does Blu-ray deliver the visual goods? Can it match (or even beat) its high-def rival HD DVD?

Of course this is just one title, my first title, so I can't judge the format unequivocally, but bottom line, 'The Fifth Element' is just not the best HD I've seen, compared to both HD DVD and even over-the-air HD broadcasts.

To be sure, this is a good-looking picture if you're not too critical. Among its positives are some vivid and clean colors. Reds, especially, really pop, and I also loved all the vibrant purples and greens. Contrast is also nicely rendered, with solid blacks and clean whites. In fact, I bet the average consumer who might see this disc up and running at their local Best Buy might even think it's pretty darn swell.

However, upon closer inspection, there are some clear deficiencies that keep this one from hitting a homer -- or even a solid triple. Though not as noticeable perhaps on the standard DVD releases (even the Superbit), 'The Fifth Element' looks oddly soft in HD, with a lack of detail and three-dimensionality that ranks it as not-quite-demo material in the high-def sweepstakes.

This all gives the image a much flatter look than I've become used to on HD -- what I expected would be eye-poppingly three-dimensional throughout just plain isn't. Oftentimes, I felt like I was just watching a standard DVD upconverted to 1080i -- good, but kinda fake-looking. Indeed, when I compared the Blu-ray version of 'The Fifth Element' to the Superbit upconverted (both via my Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray deck), the difference was not nearly as apparent as it has been between most of the HD DVD and DVD releases I've compared.

Adding insult to injury, the print is also a bit dirty in spots, which really surprised me.

To be fair to Blu-ray, although the video on this disc is clearly sub-standard, the fat lady has far from sung. I briefly sampled a few of Sony's other launch titles before finishing my assessment of this one, and all appeared to deliver superior video quality even at a mere glance.

One final mention. Unlike Toshiba's first-generation HD DVD players, the Samsung BD-P1000 is capable of outputting full 1080p (at 30 fps only) via its HDMI output. However, again, without the same title available on both Blu-ray and HD DVD, nor a 1080p-capable HD DVD player on the market, it is simply unfair to try and proclaim one format superior to the other. Until we can compare apples to apples, raw technical specs indicate that both formats should be able to deliver the same high level of video quality, at least when the playing field is level.

Audio Review


Unlike the backers of the HD DVD format, Sony is taking a different approach to the audio on their Blu-ray offerings. Like all of the initial Blu-ray titles I've received thus far from the studio for review, 'The Fifth Element' includes neither a Dolby TrueHD nor a Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack. Instead, Sony presents the film in PCM 5.1 surround -- meaning uncompressed audio. (Optional English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks are also offered.) Also gone is the DTS 5.1 surround track included on the previous Ultimate Edition and Superbit DVD versions. Needless to say, trying to compare this disc to any HD DVD Dolby Digital-Plus track would be pointless (different formats, different movies). I can only compare the uncompressed PCM track here to the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks on the previous DVDs.

Happily, the PCM track here does sound noticeably superior to both the previous Dolby and DTS tracks. Of course, it helps that 'The Fifth Element' has stood the test of time as a film with absolutely terrific sound design. This disc produces one heck of an involving and enveloping soundfield, with full use of all channels for more than just the odd effect or music cue here or there. The sense of space and imaging to the mix is often quite stunning. Pans from channel to channel are almost transparent on this PCM track, and dynamic range is also a bit fuller than on the old DTS track, and especially the Dolby Digital. Low bass also really delivers some punch, yet remains tight with no distortion. And thankfully, I did not have to ride my volume control at all during the movie, trying to balance dialogue with bombastic effects -- this mix is very even and the levels are just right.

If just this one disc is any indication, I can safely say after having reviewed a couple of dozen HD DVD titles that Blu-ray is certainly capable of delivering sound as good as any I've heard on the rival format. Of course, the real test will be a direct comparison of the same movie head-to-head on HD DVD and Blu-ray.

Special Features

First off, like all of Sony's first Blu-ray titles, 'The Fifth Element' boasts what the studio is dubbing "Seamless Menu Navigation." Basically, it is the same nifty real-time menu system that Warner uses on their HD DVD releases. You can access all the disc's chapters, options and extra features "live" while the movie is playing, with no interruption. However, Sony has not integrated Warner's zoom function, which allows you to magnify the picture, nor a chapter bookmarks function -- not at least that I could find.

Now, on to the extras -- or in this case, the lone extra, ported over from the film's previous "Ultimate Edition" DVD release, which unfortunately Director Luc Besson declined to be involved in.

There wasn't a true commentary track on the Ultimate Edition of "The Fifth Element,' but there was a "trivia fact track," which is replicated here. As usual with these types of features, there are lots of needless if fun trivia, from bits on the cast and production to how many times the number "five" appears in the movie. Cute.

But the real centerpiece of the Ultimate Edition DVD was its five featurettes, all with the word "Element" in their titles (clever, huh?) It was never gonna win any awards, but still, it's not here, nor are any of the Ultimate Edition's other extras, including an extensive still gallery and trailers. Why Sony is not including all the extras found on the standard DVD versions with its Blu-ray releases is a mystery to me.

'The Fifth Element' is a tough one to rate. Simply by virtue of it being one of the first Blu-ray titles, it had to look perfect or I would have been disappointed. And it does look good -- it's just is not the best HD I've seen. Also a problem is the fact this film has been released so many times before on standard DVD that a total lack of extras (let alone exclusives) make this less than a decent upgrade. Still, the audio is quite strong, and judging from the quick peek I've taken at some of Sony's other Blu-ray launch titles, I expect to be even more impressed by the coming Blu-ray titles in the weeks ahead.