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Flying cars, baffling hairstyles, secret religious societies and Lee Evans for some reason, The Fifth Element has it all and then some. But how much did the cult sci-fi smash accurately predict with its idea of the future? Multipass, anyone?
A lot has changed in the 25 years since The Fifth Element entered the world. Several cast members – Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, Brion James and Luke Perry – have passed away, while star Bruce Willis recently retired from acting for health reasons.
While as a movie it continues to make pretty much no sense (the baddie and goodie never share any screen time, the plot hinges on a colossal coincidence, loads of plot threads go absolutely nowhere and the main character spends a long 10 minutes having a cry while watching an alien opera singer), its vision of the future remains incredible. Between director Luc Besson, costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, comic artists Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières and a huge crew, the world it created is mesmerising – all bright colours, wacky-ass costumes and big, pleasing whooshing noises.
We’re still a long way off the movie’s 2263 setting, but it’s a very 1997-based 2263. In some ways, the creators’ imaginations ran completely wild, while in others they were very much tethered to the late 1990s. There’s faster-than-light travel, for instance, but flatscreen technology hasn’t been perfected yet and everything has crappy CRT monitors.
In some ways we’ve basically already caught up with the world of the film. Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) lives in an apartment where he can tell his home technology what to do, like a Google Home or Alexa kind of deal but with a more stilted I-am-a-robot voice. Zorg (Gary Oldman) has autonomous cleaning robots, like slightly more advanced versions of Roombas. Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) is essentially an IRL streamer before such a phrase existed, broadcasting his life to a galactic audience of millions.
How far have we got in catching up with the rest of it, though?
The film’s version of what exactly is in DNA is extremely goofy – nowhere in the double helix is two-tone dyed hair encoded – but what about what they do with it? Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is reconstructed from an alien fragment using a laser-based 3D printer, which builds her one incredibly thin layer at a time. That is still the stuff of a madman’s dream, but 3D bioprinting is a fast-moving field. While it isn’t yet possible to print entire organs in that kind of way, the technique can be used for patching and repair – more like taping over cracks than replacing parts wholesale – and in constructing cellular matrices for tissue to then be grown on. The world of organ transplants will probably look very different by the 23rd century, but printing out a whole person in a matter of seconds is probably not on the cards.
Flying cars are a science-fiction staple, but there are a lot of incremental changes that would need to occur before we got to the crowded New York skyways of The Fifth Element. Some kind of major breakthrough in hovering technology, subsequent decades of development to get to the point where a vehicle can be idle hundreds of feet in the air without rotors or thrusters of any kind, and a complete overhaul of how urban infrastructure works. So far everything that’s been developed is much more like a small plane or drone than a flying car. But there’s another 241 years until the movie is set, and stranger things have happened – the car completely changed city layouts, and less than 75 years passed between the Wright brothers’ first flight and Concorde.
The multipass – immortalised by Milla Jovovich’s alien-accented delivery of the word – seems to be an all-in-one passport, credit card and travel ticket. A lot of that is covered by mobile phones in this day and age, something oddly absent from Luc Besson’s view of the future (along with named female characters; there are only two in the whole film). Characters use landlines and payphones a lot, two things that are thin on the ground in 2022. Smartphones have purchasing and some forms of travel covered thanks to wireless payments, and while you still need to use your physical passport when travelling, that is unlikely to be the case forever – there are various schemes like the Known Traveler Digital Identity initiative which might mean you can leave them at home.
While not necessarily as world-changing as flying cars or organ regeneration, a reasonable amount of money and research is being put into robot bartenders. Why? Because they’re robot bartenders. That’s amazing. Various innovations (some COVID-led to reduce human contact) are taking place in the field, meaning customers in certain bars (mainly in cruise ships and hotels so far) can order a drink from a CGI figure on a screen and have it delivered to them, along with a few cheerfully lame one-liners.
Being human is no longer a prerequisite for fame – there are animated bands, CGI influencers and virtual celebrities. Their non-humanness is, if anything, a positive attribute: brands working with virtual celebrities don’t need to sorry about controversies from their past or anything like that. When it comes to aliens, though, our understanding of what extraterrestrial life might resemble if we ever encounter it has moved on quite a bit in the past quarter-century. The idea of every planet that harbours life producing bipedal creatures around five-foot-10 but with blue skin seems a little silly now. The likelihood is that any life we find will be more spore than soprano, more microbe than, uh, mezzo-soprano.
Korben Dallas smokes cigarettes with the filter-tobacco ratio reversed from how we know them today, with twice as much filter as smokable section. However, will there even be cigarettes in the 23rd century? The tobacco industry is phenomenally powerful, but the rise of vaping, as well as innovations like New Zealand’s new law – in which people born after 2008 will never be allowed to buy cigarettes – might mean the old-fashioned, tar-filled way of getting a nicotine fix might go the way of the fax machine, landlines and the zoetrope.
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The Kerrang! Chart
The ultimate new music countdown – every Friday!
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