Report Card: The Fifth Element


In full disclosure, The Fifth Element may be one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time. So I had to be extra vigilant about the reviews so as not to come off as a fanboy. Even with all that due diligence, Besson’s movie fared really well on a close examination of its interfaces.

Sci: A- (4 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces?

I’m giving the Ultimate Weapon a giant pass, since it’s the MacGuffin and more mystical than scientific. Other than that, there’s only three bits that really made me roll my eyes.

  1. The sleep regulator
  2. The nucleolab
  3. The Eeepholes.

That’s so few—out of dozens and dozens of interfaces—that it makes for a very believable technological universe in which the story can play out.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The technology brilliantly brings this world to life. Korben’s taxi and apartment interfaces (the cigarette dispenser, the nanny state slideaway bed, the pneumatic mail by which he’s fired) help us understand the dire circumstances in which he begins the story. The police interfaces (lockdown tools, compliance circles, on-car displays) tell of a police state that has gone off the deep end. Zorg’s little vacuum robots, weapons, and bombs, tell of a corporatist who’s lost his soul.

Interfaces: A (4 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Again, brilliantly. There are some missteps: The roach cam might have triggered less of a disgust reaction. Rhod’s rod might have been a little more performative. The police lights kind of work against their intentions. Whoever designed those evacuation beacons needs to be jailed for gross negligence. And the 5E-opedia could have been actually encyclopedic rather than random.

But there’s so much awesomeness to balance it out. The makeup tech fits fashionistas. The military communications fits soliders. The second bomb fits Mangalores. And of course the Ultimate Weapon fits multiple races across eons with its brilliant affordances and constraints.

For the sheer number of interfaces and the thought given to the aesthetic and interaction details, I’m proud that The Fifth Element has scored top marks, and just squeaked past another favorite, The Cabin in the Woods, for the top spot on the site so far. Here’s hoping more movies and television shows bring to life such a well-designed, personal vision of speculative technology, and grand adventures taking place amongst it.

Final Grade A (12 of 12), BLOCKBUSTER

Related lessons from the book

  • Lots of these interfaces could use a dose of lower case (Otherwise, AVOID ALL CAPS, page 34) but help confirm that Sans-Serif is the Typeface of the Future (page 37).
  • Korben’s alarm clock Uses Sound for Urgent Attention (page 208).
  • Korben’s taxi might have avoided pissing him off, Zorg’s desk might have saved its owner from a cherry, and Ruby’s staff might have allowed him to perform his playbacks had each Handled Emotional Inputs (page 214)
  • The multipass should have Required multifactor authentication (page 118)
  • The 5E-opedia could have Added Meaning to Information Through Organization (page 239) rather than use an alphabetical list.

New lessons

  • The military headsets remind us to Signal Dual-Presence, and additionally to Avoid Pushing into Wearables.
  • Korben’s alarm clock reminds us that Pain is an (Anti-)Affordance.
  • The Modoshawan flight controls want us to Map the Inputs to the Outputs.
  • The Mondoshawan un-disguising taught us to Use the Available Body Part in designing gestures.
  • The yellow circle compliance technique implies that we should Make Crisis Instructions Simple, Simple, Simple.
  • The terrible police chest lights should get agentive and Adjust Like a Good Valet.
  • The Ultimate Weapon reminds us to Keep Objects Orientationless if at all possible.

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