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Generation Gap Alert

The youthful lures of a film like 'The Fifth Element' (heavy on sensory experience and light on words) reflect a new cycle of Hollywood flash.

May 16, 1997|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's got Bruce Willis, CGI effects, outlandish Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes, and enough explosions to keep sci-fi buffs and militia members in heaven.

What "The Fifth Element" hasn't got is much of a story. Luc Besson's 23rd century space fantasy even has some fans admitting it's among the most incomprehensible big-budget releases in many a moon.

Far less charitable are critics like Variety's Todd McCarthy, who branded its image-overload style "cacophonous," its story "inane . . . with little regard to coherent narrative or characterization."

Snarled back Willis, from the film's flashy premiere at Cannes: "The written word is going the way of the dinosaur."

Last weekend, at least, Round 1 went to Willis. As "The Fifth Element's" top-spot take of $17 million shows, moviegoers may no longer put a premium on a well-constructed story--at least moviegoers in the 18- to-34 crowd coveted by studios. (Witness the success of last year's narratively challenged "Mission: Impossible"--dubbed "Mission: Impenetrable" by more than one critic.)

Depending on who's talking, young viewers' appetite for sensation over script indicates new film possibilities--or a disturbing sign of an illiterate movie future.

"There used to be one way of telling the story," says "Element" co-screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen ("The Karate Kid," "The Power of One"), who says his own approach was highly traditional before teaming with Luc Besson.

"What Luc has done is expanded the option of narrative. We've all been sitting around the campfire hearing stories, and one day this giggly French guy gets up and says, 'I have a different way of telling a story.' And he brings in different things--lights, costumes. . . . He's found the Electronic Age definition of telling a story. He's pushed the walls out of the linear story and said, 'See if you can grasp it this way.' You watch it from that perspective, you'll have a great time."

Especially if you're under 30 and "more open to experiences," he adds. "I've seen the film with a [young] audience--they go nuts. They say, 'The story doesn't matter.' "

But some older Hollywood veterans feel they're being taken for a ride, not given one.

"I pity the people that have to turn a movie house seat into an electric chair," laments Emmy and Tony Award winner Larry Gelbart ("Tootsie," TV's "MASH"). Though he declines to criticize "The Fifth Element"--he hadn't seen it yet--Gelbart is disturbed by the phenomenon of increasing narrative incoherence at the movies.

"Language has become a burdensome baggage in these days of visuals. I think the more we entertain ourselves in a fashion which does not involve words, the less use we have for them as tools. The more we can click an icon to bring up yet another visual, language is endangered."

Gelbart blames two chief factors for movies' current state: overindulged directors who value visual flair over story and Hollywood's hunger to reach every audience in the world. "You don't need a subtitle for a person blowing up," he says with a sigh.

Hit films that dispense with traditional storytelling aren't unprecedented in America. Stanley Kubrick's "2001" was initially panned by several top critics, until its box-office success, mostly with younger audiences, prompted a wave of positive reappraisal.

But it's a long stretch of galaxy between Kubrick's meditative epic and films like "The Fifth Element," with their nonstop action and Lollapalooza decibel level.

The turning point almost certainly came in 1977, as "Star Wars" fused a conventional, three-act story with state-of-the-art effects and the roller-coaster thrills of a Saturday morning serial. As audiences rediscovered this year, "Star Wars" worked largely because of its character-driven adventure story . . . but in the two decades since, Hollywood has mostly aped "Star Wars" action set pieces over its mythology-influenced plot.

"People can be seduced by effects," notes Richard Saperstein, executive vice president of production at New Line Cinema. His company is investing heavily in effects-powered titles this year and next, with "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," "Spawn" and 1998's "Lost in Space."

But Saperstein insists New Line's films put equal emphasis on plot and character, and he doubts other filmmakers will step too far from classical structure.

"Audiences of all ages respond to strong stories. I would agree younger audiences are capable of being distracted from lack of story by extravaganza. But I don't believe the industry as a whole is moving toward nonverbal, noncharacter movies."

Seconding his view is Jennifer Shankman, vice president of Tapestry Films, which is prepping a new version of "Buck Rogers" for Walt Disney Pictures.

"You still have to tell a good story; even though the audience might be wowed by effects, they'll still walk out feeling empty," she says, adding that plenty of no-brainer action scripts are nonetheless making the studio rounds.

"People feel they can take any genre, and if they put it in space, it's unique--I've seen 'Moby Dick' in space, 'Outbreak' in space. And what we can do with special effects will only make these trends go wider and wider. But you have to have great characters."

Larry Gelbart also points to signs that, contrary to Willis, the written word isn't going Jurassic; for example, the success of literate films from smaller studios and the fact that some Gen-X, action-driven films are imaginatively scripted.

"Take 'Grosse Point Blank'--I thought that was a brilliant film. It was violent, but you knew why, and you knew what their take was on violence," he says.

"As with anything, sound and light shows have their cycle," Gelbart says. "Movies have always been a mix of styles and techniques. Their future is strictly up to the ticket buyer who says, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to become deaf anymore.' "

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