The Fifth Element: Superbit

The Fifth Element: Superbit (1997)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Mila Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Ian Holm

Luc Besson’s racy futuristic actioner "The Fifth Element" has long been regarded as the reference DVD among fans and critics alike. Despite the fact that it was one of the first DVDs released in 1997, the DVD still offers some of the best video and audio quality found on any release to date. Now, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment is sending a "Superbit" version of "The Fifth Element" into the race and I was very curious to see how the "Superbit" improvements would work out on that particular title.

Boasting a $90 million budget, "The Fifth Element" is the most ambitious French movie production to date. The money was well spent. What starts out feeling like a remake of "The Mummy" quickly turns out to be one of the most colorful and unique science fiction-action-comedy epics of recent years. It’s a bubbling melting pot of different styles, ideas, visions and quotes, delivering a sensationally entertaining experience. In Egypt of 1914, an archeologist discovers a cosmic secret, but before he can further uncover it, aliens appear, taking the find with them. The discovery is the fifth element secretly placed there to help protect mankind from the ultimate Evil, a force that returns to Earth every 5000 years. When the time comes in a bare few centuries they will return the element to save the world… or so they say.

In the 23rd century, when the Evil finally appears from the depths of space, the fifth element is on its way back to Earth aboard an alien space freighter. When the freighter is taken down by space pirates, total annihilation seems inevitable. Scientists recover a hand from the wrecked freighter and clone its original owner. It turns out to be a young, fiery girl named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who soon escapes the scientists’ custody. She flees to the cab of New York cabdriver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). A furious race against time ensues, taking us to places as fascinating and unpredictable as life itself.

"The Fifth Element" presents a racy 23rd century with a set of colorful characters and an eye-catching production design. From the futuristic costumes of Jean-Paul Gaultier to Digital Domain’s computer-generated special effects, this movie is near-perfect. The special effects in this movie are some of the best, presenting the future not as a glimmering metallic hi-tech world, but as a believably organic society that has simply taken evolution a few steps further and higher. Everything in the movie is somehow related to technologies existing today, which lends a strong element of credibility to the movie. Though we view a strange world, it is somehow familiar. And the same is true for the characters in this movie.

We know people like the lovable loser Korben. History shows us the close resemblance of the villain Zorg (Gary Oldman) to Hitler, and even the movie’s postmodern radio-artist Ruby strikes us somehow familiar. If "The Fifth Element" sometimes quotes and pulls from other movies, it is sheerly for fun’s sake, childishly toying with all too familiar genre stereotypes.

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment’s "Superbit" releases are designed to use the entire storage space a DVD offers to improve the video and audio quality of the feature film. Since these releases do not contain any extras and utilize only minimal menus, no space is given up for extraneous content, thus allowing the producers to increase the bitrates for both, the video and audio stream.

As I pointed out above, "The Fifth Element" was widely regarded as one of the reference discs when it comes to video and audio on DVD and I am very happy to report that this bar has just been raised by the "Superbit" version of the very same film. Upon direct comparison, it is evident that the increased video bitrate allows for an image that is noticeably more detailed than he previous release. As in other "Superbit" releases, this improvement is especially visible in "busy" shots, which contain a lot of detail, a lot of texture and a lot of movement. It is there where the improved bitrate truly makes a difference, as lines are better delineated and are rendered visibly sharper, and it is there where shades and gradients are reproduced more faithfully.
Scenes like the cityscape with countless cars making up the traffic in varying layers of depth, are absolutely amazing in their clarity, revealing details that simply were not present before. I found it extremely surprising, and awe-inspiring, just how this "Superbit" version is able to improve on one of the best DVD presentations in the market. Without edge-enhancement or other artifacts, this is the best, sharpest and most detailed video image I have ever seen on any TV set!

Next stop, the audio department. Well, what can I say? Just when you thought you heard it all, there comes "The Fifth Element" in <$DTS,DTS>. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track that was part of the previous release always stood out in its transparency and the engaging use of surrounds without ever collapsing the sound field – and that despite the fact that it only employed a 384 Kbps audio bitrate. The new "Superbit" version now improves on this meticulous sonic imaging by upping the bitrate to the Dolby Digital maximum of 448 kbps and the result is a soundfield that appears even more aggressive. Ultimately however, it is the new DTS track that will blow you away. At a time when the quality improvements of DTS tracks over Dolby Digital tracks seemed to become blurred, "The Fifth Element" enters the field and reminds us of the incredible clarity that DTS tracks can offer. Bombastic is the word that comes to mind. With a rock solid bass extension, the DTS track goes strong well beyond 25Hz and makes sure your subwoofer gets a good workout. The surrounds are wildly aggressive and manage to create an image that is utterly enveloping, allowing us to pinpoint sounds in space almost to the inch of their spatial location. Ambient effects are beautifully and hauntingly floating in the air while Eric Serra’s mesmerizing soundtrack bombards the listener from all directions at times. This is an audio presentation well worthy the movie, and one DTS track you can’t afford to miss!

Director Luc Besson’s "The Fifth Element" is a furious, fast-paced, hi-tech spectacle that, at the same time, remains poetic. The movie is rich in its presentation and is simply one of the best movies of 1997. Although I thought it would not be possible to truly improve on the previous release of "The Fifth Element" I am here to eat my words. If you want to understand, what "Superbit" stands for, this is the DVD to take a look at. After a time when it seemed that supplements became more important than the feature presentation, it is refreshing to see that Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment is pushing the envelope in the other direction here, offering a movie experience here that is untainted by anything. I am proud to say that this release of "The Fifth Element" is clearly the new reference standard for incredible DVD’s video and audio quality that all other DVDs will have to live up to.