Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as Applied to The Fifth Element

This is an academic paper, written for Rabbi Willam Strongin’s Bible: Myth and History class at SUNY New Paltz.

Myths and fables have been found in cultures dating back to the earliest peoples.  These stories serve as an important lens into the ideals and values of these cultures and let us create overarching links to people who had little to no contact with each other.  Common themes can be found in myths from China to North America to India and beyond, these just being examples.  It brings up an interesting idea about humans and our curiosities and our need for explanations about the same things (as myths are often tools of explanation for natural phenomenons).  There is also the cross-cultural idea of the hero, though the exact definition varies depending on whom you ask and the hero stories of their culture.  This archetype is said to be widely appealing because it taps into our collective subconscious.  Joseph Campbell (a comparative mythologist), in his discussion of the monomyth, defines a hero in terms of their journey: “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  This is an interesting take because it does not mention qualities of the hero which allows for negative traits to be overcome and the subject to still remain a hero (eg. Edmund overcoming his cowardice in the Chronicles of Narnia series).  This hero arc can be applied to most any hero story, from the Greek myth of Hercules to the Star Wars franchise.  It can also be applied to Luc Besson’s 1997 film, The Fifth Element.

Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, details an overall arc that each hero story follows and features subcategories that can (but don’t have to be) hit as well.  The main three stages are as follows: departure, initiation, and return.  There is the establishment of what is known and the hero’s departure from that.  In this stage, first there is the call to adventure.  This is the arrival of a person or an event that calls them into action.  There is often a refusal of the call, which consists of the hero claiming in one way or another that this “isn’t [their] problem” or “[they] can’t help”.  Next, there is recognition of supernatural aid, which drives the hero into motion.  Then there is the crossing of the first threshold, which is the first taste of the unknown that the hero gets.  Finally is the belly of the whale, which is when the hero fully recognizes their involvement and makes their cross into that which is unknown to them.
Then follows the initiation, which is the hero’s journey into the unknown and unfamiliar and the trials and tribulations they face during.  First is the road of trials, which consists of (usually three, one of which is typically failed) the tests the hero must face.  Then there is a meeting with the goddess, where the hero experiences an all-encompassing and unconditional love and acceptance.  Often, there is an example of woman as the temptress, which is meant to lead the hero astray from their journey.  There can also be an atonement with the father where the hero must face someone who has the power over life and death.  This must end with the hero’s death, thought the death does not always have to be literal.  Next, the hero reaches a state of ultimate knowledge and contentment.  Finally, the ultimate boon is the completion of the hero’s journey.
Lastly, there’s the return to the known, signifying the completion of the hero’s journey.  There is often a refusal of the return because the hero has become accustom to the unknown.  But, ultimately, they must return.  The unknown is not their world.  This leads to the magic flight and the rescue from without.  There is a crossing of the threshold, which leaves the hero the master of the two worlds.  They have conquered both the known and unknown and are left with the freedom to live.

The Fifth Element is a film that seems silly and simple until you look under the hood and see that it actually demonstrates a deep understanding of the hero trope and the journey of the modern hero.  It opens strong with an introduction to the history of the world of the story and an overview of the religious beliefs that drive the film.  Leeloo, the leading female character, is actually a remnant of an ancient protection against an ultimate evil that resurfaces in the beginning of the film.  She is the fifth element (the physical embodiment of love and quintessence), the other four being earth, air, water, and fire.  (This is actually a nod to many early religions, which considered these to be the four to five components of everything.)  In accordance with Campbell’s arc, there are many instances where The Fifth Element lines up perfectly.  First off, the departure lines up almost category to category.  Korben Dallas, the main character, finds his call to adventure when Leeloo falls through the roof of his cab after escaping the scientists who returned sentience to her.  He feels he must refuse her after the police demand she is turned over but he ends up fleeing the police when she begs his help.  She is brought to a priest of the old religion, Cornelius, who serves as the supernatural aid and gives Korben an ally to whom he can refer.  Arriving at the priest’s housing also serves as the crossing of the threshold.  He is now exposed to a world of which he has no previous knowledge.  Korben is sent to escort Leeloo to retrieve four stones which are the physical embodiments of the other elements.  This is the belly of the whale.  There is no turning back from here.  Next is Korben’s initiation.  This next part serves as a good example of two conditions of Campbell’s arc: not every subcategory must be hit and they don’t necessarily have to be in Campbell’s presented order (excepting the three main categories).  The atonement with the father comes first when Korben fights the priest, who wishes to send his assistant over Korben.  Next is his road to trials; he succeeds in obtaining the elemental stones and manages to save a cruise ship full of passengers from a secondary villain group, the Mangalores.  They spend the movie trying to obtain the stones for their boss, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, who is in turn under the control of the ultimate evil.  Korben’s failed trial is met when the carrier of the stones is shot and he fails in saving her life.  This does lead to the meeting with the goddess, though, as he is met with forgiveness and words of advice: that Leeloo is not as strong as she may seem and Korben must protect her heart as well as her body.  Their ultimate boon could happen in two instances, affecting the assignments of the other events in the movie.  The first instance would be when they get the stones; the second instance could be when Leeloo allows the divine love and light inside her to form the ultimate weapon against the ultimate evil.  The first instance works better because it allows for a shift of the hero title to be moved to Leeloo in the third and final step: the return.  The refusal of the return is met when, after learning the horrors of war and the suffering men inflict on each other, Leeloo questions whether or not she should allow this to continue by defeating the evil: “What’s the use in saving life when you see what you do with it?”.  Korben explains to her that, yes, while the world holds some true horrors, love is the driving force that makes it all worth it.  His kiss to her provides the return from without.  They both become masters of the two worlds (Korben having found spirituality in Leeloo and Leelo having found love and acceptance in Korben) and continue on with their freedom to live.  The detail to which The Fifth Element follows Campbell’s arc is astounding.  The ambiguity of some of the subcategories allows for multiple interpretations, even in the one film.

Myths and fables are also meant to touch on concerns or themes that are prevalent in a culture and The Fifth Element does exactly that.  The film touches on several topics that still relevant (if not more so) in today’s day and age, such as pollution, war, God complexes, and the reliance on technology.  There are scenes in the film where there are absolutely monumental piles of garbage in complete sight and no one seems to bat an eye.  They’ve come to accept the trash and seek off planet refuge for vacations to escape their own waste.  Leeloo is completely appalled by the concept of war and suffering imposed on others and she almost allows mass extinction to put an end to it.  Zorg, in a scene where he is talking to Cornelius, tires to justify his helping the ultimate evil by claiming life comes from destruction.  He breaks a glass and a handful of robots come out to sweep and tidy it up.  They now have a purpose because he gave them one.  Zorg feels like he had the power to give and take away life at his own whim.  In this same scene, he begins to choke on the pit of a cherry and Cornelius waits to help him.  Zorg tries to press a series of buttons on his desk but the results only get in his way and he continues to choke.  Cornelius goes on to ask “Where’s the robot to pat you on the back? Or the engineer? Or the children, maybe? There, you see now, how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one… little… cherry.”  He gives him a solid pat and the pit dislodges.  Zorg’s attempt to shun human help and rely on his machines only endangers his own life more, which is a nice commentary on the reliance modern people hold to technology that simply can’t do some of the things a human can with ease.

When taken in the context of Campbell’s definition of ‘hero’ and his outline of the hero’s journey, Besson follows the main arc beautifully and manages to hit many of the important, enriching subcategories along the way.  He has managed to create a story that usually arches over several films in many of the popular modern examples in one film without the movie feeling rushed or key components being missed.  Besson understood the importance of detailed storytelling and used his skills to make Korben Dallas’s arc interesting to those who know nothing about Campbell while giving a nice nod to those have a deeper knowledge of the hero’s journey.


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