5E-opedia: Search


Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the third mode, which is to search for an in-depth topic.


When Leeloo experiences full-scale combat with Zorg and the Mangalores aboard Fhloston Paradise, she grows curious about war. On the route back to Earth aboard Zorg’s ship, she once again returns to the online encyclopedia she’s been referencing throughout the film. When she sits down, it just so happens that the system is in the middle of the W topics. It is amid “we*” and “wh*” words. “Weapon” is at the top, so maybe that’s what Zorg was looking for.

TheFifthElement-W TheFifthElement-weapon

To access a particular topic not on screen, she simply begins typing. She types “WAR,” the letters filling the screen in green all-caps, and the entry for war begins playing. This entry is different than the prior one seen on martial arts. This is simply a series of still images presented serially, around four dozen that culminate in an image of the French test of an atomic weapon at Mururoa Atoll.




Two small nuances to note. The first is that we don’t see a result of possible search results. Like Wikipedia, there is a main entry for war, and it presumes that’s the one she means. If it’s wrong, she can interrupt. That’s a smart default that will work in most cases.

The second is that we don’t see or hear Leeloo hit an “enter” key after she finishes typing “war.” (The other keys each emit a small beep.) How did the system know she wasn’t continuing on to “warrior” or “warship”? A smart system would be able to interpret the pause after the “r” as a likely end, once it passes an outer threshold for her typical typing speed, and begin to show her the “war” entry. Then, if she continued to add another letter just outside that threshold, it could evaluate the string. If it might be a continuation, like typing an “s” for “warship” it could pause the display and wait. If a continuation wouldn’t make any sense, like “warx,” it could presume she was entering a new word beginning with “x” or help her recover in case it was just a plain old typo.

Interestingly, this is kind of the way Google Instant search works. Did the designers for The Fifth Element accidentally invent it 13 years ahead of Google?

Despite that cool possibility, I have to ding this entry for not really explaining anything. Some aren’t really about war but about terror, such as the image of the burning cross at a KKK rally. But even for the others, yes, they are horrific images. And they are a stinging reminder of the horrors that accompany war. But they really only work for someone with the prior knowledge of what they describe. Steve McCurry‘s haunting image of a tank in Kuwait, for instance, inspires despair only if you know the full background story of that war, and this sequence certainly does not provide it to Leeloo.


Ultimately, regardless of the mode this encyclopedia is in, it is a cinematic conceit that we should not take as a good example of rapid learning for the real world.


Gravity (?) Scan


The first bit of human technology we see belongs to the Federation of Territories, as a spaceship engages the planet-sized object that is the Ultimate Evil. The interfaces are the screen-based systems that bridge crew use to scan the object and report back to General Staedert so he can make tactical decisions.


We see very few input mechanisms and very little interaction with the system. The screen includes a large image on the right hand side of the display and smaller detailed bits of information on the left. Inputs include

  • Rows of backlit modal pushbuttons adjacent to red LEDs
  • A few red 7-segment displays
  • An underlit trackball
  • A keyboard
  • An analog, underlit, grease-pencil plotting board.
    (Nine Inch Nails fans may be pleased to find that initialism written near the top.)

The operator of the first of these screens touches one of the pushbuttons to no results. He then scrolls the trackball downward, which scrolls the green text in the middle-left part of the screen as the graphics in the main section resolve from wireframes to photographic renderings of three stars, three planets, and the evil planet in the foreground, in blue.

FifthE-UFT008 FifthE-UFT014 FifthE-UFT010

The main challenge with the system is what the heck is being visualized? Professor Pacoli says in the beginning of the film that, “When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole, like a door, is open.” This must refer to an unusual, trinary star system. But if that’s the case, the perspective is all wrong on screen.

Plus, the main sphere in the foreground is the evil planet, but it is resolved to a blue-tinted circle before the evil planet actually appears. So is it a measure of gravity and event horizons of the “black hole?” Then why are the others photo-real?

Where is the big red gas giant planet that the ship is currently orbiting? And where is the ship? As we know from racing game interfaces and first-person shooters, having an avatar representation of yourself is useful for orientation, and that’s missing.

And finally, why does the operator need to memorize what “Code 487” is? That places a burden on his memory that would be better used for other, more human-value things. This is something of a throw-away interface, meant only to show the high-tech nature of the Federated Territories and for an alternate view for the movie’s editor to show, but even still it presents a lot of problems.

The Shagpile Cockpit


Barbarella’‘s rocket ship has a single main room, which is covered wall-to-wall with shagpile carpet. The visual panel of her voice-interface computer, called Alphy, is built into the wall near the back. On the right side of Alphy sits the video phone statue. To the left a a large reproduction of Seurat’’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte masks a door to exit the ship.


A recessed, circular seating space near the front acts as the cockpit. From this position Barbarella can see through a large angled viewport. One nice aspect of the design of the cockpit is that when things are going poorly for the rocket ship, and Barbarella is being buffeted about, the pile keeps the damage to a minimum and, the recessed cockpit is likely to “catch” her and hold her there, in a place where she can try and remedy the situation. (This is exactly what happens when they encounter “magnetic disturbances” on their approach to Tau Ceti.)

Magnetic Disturbances

The control panel for the ship is a wide band of roughly 60 unlabeled black, white, and gray keys, curving around the pilot like amphitheater seating. The keys themselves are random lengths, stacking in some places two and three to a column. Barbarella presses these keys when she must manually pilot the ship, at one point pressing a particular one several times in quick succession. That action suggests not controls for building up commands like a computer keyboard, but rather direct-effect controls, like an automobile dashboard, where each key has a different, direct effect.


This keyboard panel lacks any clues as to the functions of the keys for first-time users, but the high-contrast and cluster patterns make it easy for expert users like Barbarella (being as she is a 5-star double-rated Astro-Navigatrix) to visually locate a particular key amongst them. But there’s a lot that could be improved. First and most obvious is that the extents of the keyboard are quite spread out from her immediate reach. Bringing them within easy reach would mean less physical work. We also know that like an automotive dashboard, unless these keys are all controlling things with direct, obvious consequences, some status indicators in the periphery of her vision would be damned handy. And even with the unique key configuration, Barbarella would have an even easier time of it with physically differentiated controls, ideally with carefully designed affordances.

The other features of the cockpit, including a concave panel in the wall to her left with large, round, colored lights, and a set of large, reflective black domes on the right hand side of the cockpit, are not seen in use.