Blade Runner and The Fifth Element: The Original Future Epic and its Replicant

With the 1982 release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a new science fiction subgenre came into being: the future epic. This genre takes its origins in films such as Logan’s Run and Planet of the Apes, but also Scott’s own Alien, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as comic books and sci-fi novels. Blade Runner[1] was the first coherent synthesis of these texts, and introduced the crucial component of a heterogeneous future city, one of the genre’s fundamental tropes. However, far from being a mere model, Scott’s film has remained one of the most narratively compelling and politically progressive of the cycle. While many subsequent future epics up the ante visually, their plots suffer and their ideological implications are regressive. In what follows I will analyze how a more recent film – Luc Besson’s 1997 The Fifth Element[2] – falls short of the political potential of its model, Blade Runner. In doing so, I will pay particular attention to sexuality and gender differences as they are undermined or reinforced in these future epics (and some others).

Films of the future epic genre are not only set in the future, but ideally are also concerned with the status of human society in that imagined future. This is one of The Fifth Element’s weaknesses, as it is largely an action film that happens to take place in the future. In contrast, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is set in the very near future, but its concern for humanity’s welfare in that future places it firmly in the future epic genre. Beyond this concern for the future of humanity as a macrosystem, as announced by the ‘epic’ in ‘future epic,’ films of this genre often focus on the changing status of the human individual. This is already at work in the question of difference – or lack thereof – between humans and replicants in the future of Blade Runner; and is taken up repeatedly elsewhere: the cloning theme in The Sixth Day, synthetic memories and brain-washing in Total Recall, robotics again in the Spielberg/Kubrick film Artificial Intelligence: A.I.[3] and Alex Proyas’s I, Robot, the dream recording device in Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, or the question of fate and self-determination raised by Minority Reports’ future detectives (which, like Blade Runner and Total Recall, is based on a Philip K. Dick story). Through these kinds of plots, the future epic genre “narrates the dissolution of the most fundamental structures of human existence. By positing a world that behaves differently – whether physically or socially – from this one, our world is denaturalized.”[4] Complementing these narratives that elaborate futures in which the very ‘nature’ of humanity is questioned, future epics present a visually rich iconography.

The dominant aesthetic of the future epic is a present that has been retrofitted. “The future, in other words, is a combination of the new and the very, very used.”[5] This visual code is what makes the future epic instantly recognizable as a postmodern genre, combining narrative and aesthetic traits from a multitude of sources – cinematic bricollage. Blade Runner, for instance, borrows heavily from science fiction and film noir. The vision of a future in which robots do all our manual labor and colonies have been established on other planets is firmly sci-fi fodder, as are the spaceships and high-tech gadgets used by the Blade Runners. Meanwhile, the plot of a detective unable to unravel the evils of a nebulous city, and the femme fatale he has fallen for, are familiar conventions of classic film noir, as is much of Blade Runner’s set and costume design, and the recurring use of low-key lighting. This is not to suggest that future epics necessarily combine sci-fi and film noir codes every time, but that a kind of genre mash-up is always at play. As postmodern texts, future epics’ aesthetic codes are assembled by the “cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion.”[6] In The Fifth Element, for instance, sci-fi codes prevail while elements of the action adventure, slapstick comedy, romantic comedy and chase film are adopted alternately in specific sequences. Such a collage of narrative and aesthetic elements, combined with a compelling vision of the future, structures the fictional world of most future epics.

These rich and complex visions of the future make the genre extremely entertaining and pleasurable to watch – most future epics being conceived and marketed as blockbusters – but they also tend to pose uneasy ethical dilemmas that most viewers don’t notice or choose to ignore. As Slavoj Žižek puts it – citing Blade Runner as an example – “the aim of the postmodernist treatment is to estrange its very initial homeliness.”[7] Put another way, films of the future epic genre “par excellence are products with a distinctive mass appeal… it is for the interpreter to detect in them an exemplification of the most esoteric theoretical finesses.”[8] Such themes are evidently at work in Blade Runner, though the film had not achieved the balance of entertainment and engagement that later future epics will exhibit. “Blade Runner was released in the United States simultaneously with E.T. and for one week was its serious challenger at the box office; then receipts for Blade Runner dropped disastrously while those for E.T. soared.”[9] These diverging returns, for critic Robin Wood, express “a preference for the reassuring over the disturbing, the reactionary over the progressive, the safe over the challenging, the childish over the adult, spectator passivity over spectator activity.”[10] This raises Laura Mulvey’s concept of liminal cinema,[11] and many future epics certainly belong in this category, most clearly Blade Runner and the aforementioned Until the End of the World. The former’s recuperation by fans and critics has tempered its initial dismissal – while the latter seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth – but more recent future epics have put a premium on entertainment while letting such thought-provoking elements as those put into play by Blade Runner remain mostly implicit.

This is certainly the case in The Fifth Element, whose narrative and aesthetic bear striking resemblances to those of Blade Runner, but whose political implications are more unclear and less radical. A series of oppositions between the two films illustrates this de-politicization, the most elaborate being their dissimilar constructions of sexuality and gender difference. This should first be approached through the theme of constructed beings: replicants in Blade Runner and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) in The Fifth Element. In Scott’s film, the constructedness of the replicants is openly acknowledged, and their blurring of traditional boundaries is flaunted, most clearly in the characters of Zhora, Pris and Roy. They wear alternately sexy and androgynous clothing; their behavior similarly varies from hyper-sexual to bisexual to asexual; and their playing with gender categories immediately raises the point that they are replicants, and that ascribing gender categories to them is therefore senseless. They retain “a certain sexual mystery, they carry suggestions of sexual ambiguity.”[12] Like the cyborg, a replicant “is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.”[13] In pointing out the un-naturalness of gender categories for the replicants, Blade Runner “makes us unreal – we are forced, or at least encouraged, to confront our own constructedness, and by confronting our selves, to remake them.”[14] For cybernetic and feminist critics, therefore, Blade Runner’s greatest strength comes from the way the replicants undermine categories of gender construction that are often considered natural.

A quick and interesting aside is the Gigolo Joe character in the Spielberg/Kubrick future epic Artifical Intelligence: A.I. Joe is a sexbot played by Jude Law, a cyborg who – much to Dona Haraway’s dismay, no doubt – is completely recuperated into a heteronormative patriarchal economy. He is constructed solely to pleasure women, certainly not men (not to mention other cyborgs). Furthermore, at one point he tells David, the film’s young cyborg protagonist, that when he has sex with a customer he “make(s) her a real woman.” The implication that a woman can only be “real” by having sex with a man – or a man-made man substitute – reinscribes this strong figure of cyborg sexuality into a deeply conservative role. The Fifth Element performs a similar operation with respect to the Leeloo character, though the operation is more subtle than this example from A.I.

In The Fifth Element then, much of the plot is a process of socializing the constructed Leeloo into a conventional gender position, thereby canceling her extremely artificial origins. As she sits and learns “our history, the last 5,000 years she’s missed,” the film doesn’t stop to questions the ideological implications of her indoctrination. Contrastingly, the implanted memories of Blade Runner’s replicants become one of the main ways the film manipulates essentialist notions of human-ness. The Fifth Element avoids unsettling the audience’s illusions of natural gender categories by glossing over the implications of Leeloo’s technological assembly – after all, the entire cast of characters could have originated from the same laboratory process, a scenario admirably hinted at in the Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning caper The Sixth Day. Though Leeloo is referred to alternately as engineered and built, she ends up being recuperated into some sort of divine and essentialist concept of the perfect being. This is particularly audacious since the film shows the process of Leeloo’s construction, before ultimately integrating her into a very conventional gender role. Indeed, she only comes to serve her purpose – saving the Earth from an ultimate evil – when Corbin Dallas (our white heterosexual male hero) says that he loves her. In this sense, Leeloo is really only one half of the title’s fifth element, the other being the patriarchal power structures that need her – need to dominate her – to ensure their continued existence.

As The Fifth Element’s patriarchal everyman, Corbin Dallas (played by Bruce Willis in one of his less macho iterations) comes out of his narrative in a deceptively strong position, particularly compared to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. Corbin’s restored male power, however, is only enabled by Leeloo’s gradual subordination to him. In this sense, she saves him twice: she stops the apocalyptic ball of fire 62 miles from Earth, and she consents to Corbin’s objectifying and possessing her. Just as The Fifth Elements could be taken as the story of a hysterical woman’s integration into a patriarchal society, so it can be construed as Corbin’s journey away from his nagging mother, into adulthood and sexual maturity. However, the film inadvertently demonstrates the inherent misogyny of this process when executed under patriarchal law: Corbin can only reach adulthood by possessing a woman who has (essentially) nobody else in the world, and he only avoids his mother’s phone call (in the final scene) by hiding in a womb-like reactor chamber where he is having sex with Leeloo – the very reactor in which she was created. Suddenly, Corbin looks a lot like A.I.’s Gigolo Joe, making Leeloo into “a real woman” by making love to her. What the film posits as his arrival into sexual maturity and happiness is in fact just an incredibly successful Oedipal narrative in which Corbin has sex with the unattainable (perfect) mother and returns to her womb in the same breath. Though he starts off in the throes of white male anxiety – isolated, unemployed, defeated – Corbin ends the film having regained all his potency and white male power (which is, not surprisingly, bound up in the military and gun-slinging), thanks to Leeloo’s subjectification under patriarchal law.

Deckard’s investigation in Blade Runner, in sharp distinction, only weakens his tenuous illusion of unified subjectivity. Like the protagonists of late film noirs, he undertakes an investigation that raises more questions than it answers. Even after outlasting his polysexual double Roy (an “outed” replicant), Deckard’s “closeted” cyborgs-ness is fairly clear – particularly in the recently released “Final Cut,” which I take to be (hopefully) the film’s final and authoritative version. However, far from a simple opposition between human and cyborgs, Blade Runner’s “underlying issue is not whether we can give a machine the qualities of a human, but whether the human has lost its humanity; whether it has become, in fact, a machine.”[15] In this respect, the film’s cyborgs are far more human than Deckard, who is racked by an irrational hatred of the replicants, which then turns out to be a self-hatred. Unlike Deckard then, who is perpetually trying to compensate for the constitutive split of human subjectivity that he has assumed, the replicants do not seek “to produce a total theory, but (have) an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction.”[16] Blade Runner’s deeply ambiguous ending leaves us to wonder how Deckard will react to this knowledge, how he will experience his freedom from conventional roles and categories, his liminality.

The loosening of gender and sexual conventions that this making-strange of the “natural” self implies, however, is fully embodied in an apparently human character in The Fifth Element, Chris Tucker’s radio animator Ruby Rhod. He is the most revolutionary element in the film and, therefore, is very unconvincingly normalized. His adopting of homoerotic and androgynous styles – low-cut necklines in his tight-fitting costumes reveal surprisingly gentle shoulders and collarbone – suggests a drag queen’s wardrobe not unlike something Zhora or Pris’s character in Blade Runner might wear. These typically queer signifiers are compounded by Ruby’s generally hyper-sexual behavior, which is often revealed to be largely performed as soon as his radio broadcast cuts to commercial. Similarly, this adopting of countless supposedly gay styles and mannerisms is undercut by his apparently all-female sexual pursuits. While the ideological goal of this visually queer character having sex with women and being played for laughs may be to render such style and behavior “safe” for patriarchal consumption, the heavy-handedness of the move takes away from its credibility. Rather than normalizing those queer signifiers, the fluidity of Ruby’s movements between gender and sexual roles points out their very arbitrariness. “Cyborgs,” like Ruby (and Deckard), “might consider more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment. Gender might not be global activity after all, even if it has profound historical breadth and depth.”[17] Ruby’s adherence to liminality outpaces the effect of the jokes intended to mute his subversion of gender roles and sexual characters. A more daring (and consequentially impossible) film would have had the cyborg couple Ruby and Leeloo facing down the ultimate evil.

Incidentally, the nature of the malevolent power in both these films, though largely unrelated to issues of gender and sexuality, is crucial to their ideological implications. Within the analytical framework set up by Robin Wood in his discussion of horror films,[18] we can see how essentially conservative The Fifth Element’s “absolute evil” is, particularly alongside the man-made threat constructed around Blade Runner’s replicants. In Scott’s film, Deckard and the other Blade Runners “retire” escaped replicants in order to prevent them gaining any sense of class-consciousness and inciting their fellow enslaved workers to revolt. This is the sort of “repression, in other words, that makes impossible the healthy alternative – the full recognition and acceptance of the Other’s autonomy and right to exist.”[19] The film derives much of its liminality from undermining the opposition between human and replicant – normality and the Other – instead revealing the two entities to be fundamentally indistinguishable. Or, as Wood tellingly puts it, “the Monster” – replicants in this case – “is clearly the emotional center, and much more human than the cardboard representatives of normality,” Deckard and Corbin in our films.[20] Blade Runner’s radical breakdown of this traditional opposition between the Other and normality is compounded by the fact that the replicants are created by Tyrell Corp. The animosity between Blade Runners and replicants, between normal “natural” society and its repressed Other, is perpetuated by a transnational corporation, locating the closest thing Blade Runner has to an absolute evil in late capitalism.

The Fifth Element stages a similar analogy between evil and transnational (or trans-planetary) capital, which it simultaneously undermines. Gary Oldman’s Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg and the mercenary Mangalore aliens he hires are the film’s most visible baddies. Likewise, the headquarters of Zorg’s company – a weapons manufacturer after all – have the air of an evil lair. However, the root of the film’s conflict is a universal evil that appears every 5,000 years. This grandeur, this universal arbitrariness, locates the film’s big Other firmly outside human control and determination. While Zorg is clearly in league with this otherworldly threat – inexplicably receiving long-distance calls from the malevolent fireball under the pseudonym “Mr. Shadow” – it is an essentially mythic evil, comfortably dissociated from a human source. Rather than assuming responsibility for the construction of our society’s Other, “horror is disowned” in The Fifth Element.[21] In the same movement, Zorg comes off as an evil henchman, and the narrative steers clear of implying any fundamental analogy between capitalism and pure evil.

Such narrative divergences between Blade Runner and The Fifth Element undercut their initial similarities, thereby curbing most of the latter’s progressive potential. The integration of the cybernetic Leeloo into a conventional social role, in fact, inverses the movement that Deckard undergoes from card-carrying, gun-toting defender of society into its very Other. This crisis in subjectivity that Harrison Ford’s character undergoes is completely skirted in Corbin’s narrative, though both men begin their respective films in a similarly bleak situation. To its credit, however, The Fifth Element betrays the fact that the patriarchal male can only maintain the illusion of unified subjectivity by possessing an Other – in this case Leeloo. Blatant as this move is in the film, it is not questioned or undermined in any significant way, and thus only leaves room for a reading “against the grain.” Like the gender play of the replicants in Blade Runner, The Fifth Element’s most radical component is the poly-sexual Ruby Rhod – whose name, fittingly, is a conflation of a precious red stone and a phallic pseudonym. These subversive characters “can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.”[22] They also suggest the radical potential of future epics to undermine what are often construed as “natural” categories and boundaries. By offering a distant yet familiar narrative space from which to look back on our own cultural and historical situation, the future epic creates the possibility of self-examination and change.

This essay was written for Prof. Royal Brown's "Postmodern Film Theory" class at the New School in the Fall of 2007.


Artificial Intelligence: AI. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt. Dreamworks, 2001.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson. The Ladd Company, 1982.

Bukatman, Scott. Blade Runner. London, UK: British Film Institute, 1997.

Fifth Element, The. Dir. Luc Besson. Perf. Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker. Gaumont, 1997.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. pp. 149-181.

Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” 1984. In Media and Cultural Studis: Keyworks. Revised ed. Eds. Durham, Meenakshi Gigi and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. pp. 482-519.

Mulvey, Laura. “Changes: Thoughts on Myth, Narrative and Historical Experience.” In Narrative and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. pp. 159-175.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Introduction.” In Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London/New York: Verso, 1992. pp. 1-2.

[1] Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson. The Ladd Company, 1982.

[2] Fifth Element, The. Dir. Luc Besson. Perf. Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker. Gaumont, 1997.

[3] Artificial Intelligence: AI. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt. Dreamworks, 2001.

[4] Bukatman, Scott. Blade Runner. London, UK: British Film Institute, 1997. 8.

[5] Bukatman, 21.

[6] Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” 1984. In Media and Cultural Studis: Keyworks. Revised ed. Eds. Durham, Meenakshi Gigi and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. pp. 482-519. 494.

[7] Žižek, Slavoj. “Introduction.” In Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London/New York: Verso, 1992. pp. 1-2. 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 161.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Mulvey, Laura. “Changes: Thoughts on Myth, Narrative and Historical Experience.” In Narrative and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. pp. 159-175. 175.

[12] Wood, 164.

[13] Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. pp. 149-181. 150.

[14] Bukatman, 80.

[15] Bukatman, 68.

[16] Haraway, 181.

[17] Harawar, 180.

[18] Wood, 63-84.

[19] Ibid., 66.

[20] Ibid., 72.

[21] Ibid., 79.

[22] Haraway, 181


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