The Accident That Nearly Destroyed The Fifth Element's Most Complicated Scene

When you think about Hollywood blockbusters, French cinema is not the first thing you think of. In fact, it might be the last. French filmmaker Luc Besson abandoned expectations and turned the sci-fi genre on its head with the 1997 release of "The Fifth Element." With roots in French New Wave cinema that emphasizes visual style and experimentation, Besson created a style of his own with bold and bombastic fashion, humorous and bizarre antagonists, and a dystopian future set to lush colors rather than monotone palates. Besson is credited as one of the creators of the French film style known as Cinéma du look, which emphasizes style over substance.

In the case of "The Fifth Element," it has both. As The Atlantic notes, when the film's hero Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) cries (or at least gets misty-eyed in a moment of revelation) during the opera scene, it was something unheard of in a modern-day blockbuster. Think Han Solo weeping rather than replying, "I know" to Princess Leia's love confession, or Neo disconnecting from the simulation to collect himself whilst shedding a tear.

As we near the 25th anniversary of "The Fifth Element," a look back at the film reveals some surprising details about the genre-defying film. Perhaps most notable is that the seminal moment of the film almost didn't happen. An accident at an airplane tarmac, as far from the opulent landscape created in the movie as you could imagine, almost ruined the entire film.

The One Thing You Absolutely Did Not Want

The pivotal moment in the film is often referred to as the "Diva scene." The Diva (Maïwenn Besco) is an alien opera singer who carries four engraved stones, four of the five elements, inside her. She gives a moving performance before losing her life. Members of the film's production team talked to EW about the powerful scene. First assistant director Chris Carreras explained that the scene was shot like a concert, describing it as "jaw-dropping."

You wouldn't think a concert sequence in the middle of an action film would be the most difficult scene to shoot, but as Creature Design Supervisor Nick Dudman said:

"We ended up with Maïwenn on 14-inch stilts wearing a skintight foam and latex dress that had to be made in one single piece with no seams...It was nerve-wracking, shooting at night in the opera house, worrying about whether the latex going to peel off, or if she stepped forward too far on the stilts would she just scream and disappear into the orchestra pit? There were lots of worries."

The concert scene was intercut with a fight scene to make cinematic brilliance.

The critical scene almost didn't make it the final cut of the movie. Associate Producer John Amicarella explained how the film negatives for the scene had fallen off the airplane onto the tarmac at LAX and run over by a forklift. The beautiful diva scene was reduced to a mess of film canisters in trash cans. However, the editors were able to salvage the negatives and cut together the scene Besson wanted, saving "the money shot" of the film.

More Elemental Truths About the Film

What might "The Fifth Element" look like without the scene? Editors would have either salvaged enough footage or re-shot the scene to establish the basic premise of the Diva's concert. Unfortunately, reshoots are rarely as extensive as principal photography, and there's no doubting that the film would have suffered without the original footage. More importantly, it loses the story's most cathartic scene.

The Diva scene gives Korben Dallas (and audiences) a brief respite from the non-stop assault on our senses the film's action had provided thus far. The pause serves as a moment of reflection by Dallas and an important moment of his character arc. It completes his transformation from reluctant hero to galvanized savior of humanity. This essential scene sets Korben Dallas apart from the flat, Western-inspired heroes that came before him.

Without the full Diva scene, the narrative would focus mostly on the action sequence with the alien Mangalores. What sets the Mangalore fight scene apart is the juxtaposition with the exquisite performance happening at the same time on another part of the ship. Without it, you would have a middling action sequence as the rising action comes to its crescendo.

Thankfully, the greatness of "The Fifth Element" was saved with the recovery of the diva scene footage. The film was a labor of love that Luc Besson began writing when he was a teenager. The end result made $263 million worldwide. Not bad for an aspiring teenage screenwriter. Thank goodness it wasn't ruined by a forklift on a tarmac.