The Fifth Element and the best way of finding out about something
"It's a movie about the hunt for water!"
Somehow, twenty years have passed since the release of The Fifth Element. That means it's been twenty years since those gentle brass aliens first wobbled into our lives, twenty years since we first saw that scrupulously compact apartment, that cityscape of bobbing yellow taxicabs, that glorious visual joke about the future of cigarettes.
It also means it's been twenty years since I first learnt about a piece of art - about anything, really - using the internet.
I don't think an artwork has ever revealed itself to me in such a satisfying manner. I first used the internet in 1996, I think, during my first year of university. Back then, we were all very excited by the internet, but I remember a certain anxiety set in whenever one of us actually got in front of it. You'd sit staring at Altavista in the open access center of the campus library, not entirely sure what you should type in. For a while, I think I probably tracked down old Elastica B-sides or half-heartedly looked up something or other for a course. But then The Fifth Element came along and the internet finally had a proper purpose.
Here's how you found out about The Fifth Element: you found out about it from a friend in halls, who had heard of this crazy new movie that was being made, an original sci-fi with a vast budget and, it was assumed, truly cosmic preoccupations. This was going to be a movie about earth, about space, about life and death and all the philosophy in between. It would have dozens of alien races and focus on their complex interactions. And Bruce Willis was in it. And Gary Oldman. And Milla Jovovich.
In fact, almost nothing was known about The Fifth Element in the lead-up to its release. And this is why it was so much fun to search for it on the internet. From my friend in halls, I must have gotten the address for a Fifth Element fan-site, and from there things really took off. There were a few cherished pictures: Willis in that stretchy orange vest, Oldman with sort of a Hitler thing going on, a golden room with a very bright light overhead. These images were all rendered rather weirdly on the Macs at university, garish, some colours inverted, so the film looked even trippier than we had hoped. More importantly, though, this site had rumours. It went to great lengths to explain how nothing about this movie was being revealed - Willis on some chat show had apparently said that he could tell people what The Fifth Element was about, but then he'd have to kill everyone - and so every bit of stray information that arrived was ruthlessly and exhaustively over-interpreted.
Details started to emerge - or rather "details" started to emerge. The Fifth Element was about a universe-wide hunt for water. Tricky was in it. Tricky wasn't in it, but was doing the soundtrack. It had an amazing scene in a floating traffic jam. There was going to be a poster for it in the background of the brilliantly stupid Stallone plodder Daylight, and so Daylight was getting a boost from all the Fifth Element fans queuing to see it. There was a scene, right, in which Oldman, the baddie, got a phone call from the real baddie that was so terrifying it made his head start to bleed. The whole thing was a sequel to Blade Runner. The whole thing was a prequel to Blade Runner. The director, Luc Besson - this was a rumour that was strictly real-world word-of-mouth - was ill with a mysterious disease and this would be the last film he ever made.
It feels strange, in 2017 of all years, to get nostalgic for rumours and speculation, for fake news. The crucial thing here, though, was that nothing serious was at stake. In many ways, the rumoured version of The Fifth Element is my favourite version of the film. It's so vast, so roaming, a film that could be about anything, and that probably was about anything. Rumour made the scope and ambition of this film unprecedented and unrivalled, while the few images that made it through to us simultaneously grounded it in something intensely specific. There is something of games to all this, of the early days of games where you got a few blurry screenshots and had to imagine the rest - the day before Vidocs, before big reveals, before anyone knew that games had something called a producer on the publisher side who would turn up to do interviews.
And this is perhaps the crucial thing, the thing that separates my experience of "learning" about The Fifth Element from fake news, or even the crazy claims made by a not-very-involved publisher in the lead-up to a big game release. The wildest stuff going around about The Fifth Element all came from the community, it was like this glorious delusion we were all having together, misleading ourselves willingly, with little guidance or misdirection from the people upstairs.
You could argue we were all writing The Fifth Element prior to anyone actually getting to read it, but I wouldn't do that to you. Instead, what I'll say is this: I think this is the ideal way of learning about something like a film, or like a game. But I also think you can only really learn about something like this once. Mania for The Fifth Element, a sense of its cultural importance arriving ahead of its release and generated, in part, by the lock-down from the people who made it, cannot really be repeated, and cannot be manufactured to order.
And it cannot be faked. Now and then I look in on one of those ARGs someone has cooked up to drive hype for a new game or a new TV series, and there's always something faintly grim about them: marketeers dropping busywork into the laps of their fans, dispatching them around the world to dig up pre-planted puzzle pieces or rush across America to answer payphones ringing in the middle of the desert.
That is not the best way to find out about something new, although I imagine it's fun to be swept up in the headlong rush of it. The best way to find out something new was the way we all found out about The Fifth Element - or failed to find out about it. And that was the point really, weeks of expectation and imagination, and then a wonderful surprise on release day.