Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: if we are being strict with words, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is closer to the polar opposite of a blockbuster than an example of one. But I'm using it anyway, because I will never have a better excuse to revisit this most sublimely batshit sci-fi epic.

It is a great pleasure to look back over one's life and be able to say, with complete certainty, "I know more now than I did then". For me, there are virtually no touchstones in my development as a cinephile that more clearly mark that process than my changing relationship to the 1997 French-produce, English-language sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element. When I first say the film, I didn't just dislike it, I hated it, as intensely as I hated any of the big, loud, messy CGI-heavy tentpoles that were starting to dominate the marketplace. 20 years later, and although I don't think I could pinpoint when it happened exactly, and the situation has almost exactly reversed: I don't just love The Fifth Element, I'd be just about willing to commit in print to the opinion that it's the best summer popcorn movie of the 1990s.

So make of all that whatever you want, and in the meantime, let's dive into the goofball sublimity of director Luc Besson's deranged and delectable tribute to the gaudy European sci-fi comics of his youth (he co-wrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen, after a story he'd been nurturing since he was a teenager besotted with Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières's comic series Valérian, agent spatio-temporel). It's self-evidently not to all tastes; I am personally the proof of that. But owing to the enormous quantity of stuff in the film, I have to imagine that very nearly everybody could find something in here of merit, somewhere in its overflowing 126 minutes. Which is, I admit, an awfully long running time for something with such a zany, insubstantial plot.

Might as well get that plot out of the way: The Fifth Element speaks of a cosmic evil force that appears in the universe once every 5000 years, and can only be stopped with a weapon combining the five elements: the four we all know and love - air, earth, fire, water - and a fifth element whose identity is a mystery to the British archaeologist (Christopher Fairbank) who uncovers the weapon's hiding place in Egypt in 1914. The worse timing for him, as the weapons' alien keepers, arrive right at that moment to secure it from the war breaking out across the whole planet right then. We then skip ahead to the middle of the 23rd Century, when the 5000-year timer goes off, and the evil entity sends its forces, under the guidance of the human businessman Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) to prevent the weapon from being assembled, while Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), the current guardian of the knowledge surrounding the weapon on Earth, is charged with retrieving the its components.

Honestly, the most germane part of that whole paragraph might be the character names. The Franco-German mouthful "Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg" tells us just about everything we need to know about the proudly ludicrous European pulp tradition that Besson and Kamen were drawing down from, and that Oldman uses a Texan drawl (or what I suppose Besson and Oldman imagined was a Texan drawl, close enough) to play the craven industrialist so named tells us just about everything we need to know about the flatly goofy tone that the film intends to inhabit that pulpy tone with. And the fact that Ian Holm, one of the most cozily English-looking people that the British Isles have ever produced, plays a space-Catholic named "Vito Cornelius" tells us the rest.

Also, "Father Vito Cornelius" is almost indecently fun to say aloud.

What follows, anyway, is an at-times incoherent action-adventure that serves as a tour of the fanciful sci-fi landscapes of Besson's teenage imagination: a mile-high pileup of towering skyscrapers and flying cars that still has the basic design sensibility of our modern-day New York City; a luxury space liner traveling to the resort planet Fhloston Paradise, with Polynesian, Indian, and Italian influences merrily living in harmony; and the curvy, neo-Art Deco metallic shapes that pop culture of the 1960s anticipated that the spacebound future was going to look like. The film's production design is credited to Dan Weil, but the initial designs came from Mézières and Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and the look of the thing is enormously characteristic of those illustrators, so characteristic that Giraud later sued Besson for plagiarising the comic that the artist had written with Alejandro Jodorowsky (the case was thrown out, partially on the grounds that Giraud was in that case plagiarising himself). Since the explosion of CGI set-building in the wake of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, films whose visual style is little more than a headlong plunge into the happily tacky, gaudy worlds of mid-century science fiction illustration have become at least something of a common appearance, once every couple of years or so, but in 1997, a film that looked like The Fifth Element, and was made with such a generous budget as The Fifth Element (this was the most expensive French production of all time, and remained that way for over a decade) was awfully close to being unprecedented (the closest I can come up with, and it's still pretty far away, is the 1968 Dino De Laurentiis production of the Eurosmut comic book space opera Barbarella)

Even 20 years on, The Fifth Element hasn't lost very much of its ability to thoroughly confound and dazzle. Big-budget popcorn movies certainly haven't grown an less sterile in the intervening years, and the brightly-colored, brightly-lit corrective this film offered to the standard tentpole model remains a bracing as ever. Obliged by the state of technology to create much of its fantasy world through practical effects (and there are at least two points at which the CGI lets the film down, including, unfortunately, at its climax), The Fifth Element contains some of the most enjoyable creature effects of its generation, from the metallic, bird-like armor of the Mondoshawans (the race that protects the weapon) on to the big-eyed dog-sized elephant creature living under Zorg's desk. There's a sense of physical presence to the sets, full of little blocks and steps and widgets that the actors have to interact with - they're living spaces, meant to be explored rather than meant to be looked at.

It's above all things a magnificently energetic film - a live-action cartoon, I'd very nearly say, except that of course it's more in the line of being a live-action comic book. The look of it is a huge part of that, obviously: this is just about the brightest, shiniest science fiction movie of the decade, perhaps matched only by Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which lacks its willingness to go all-in on florid quirks in the cinematography and editing to make the imagery pop more. But it also matters a lot that The Fifth Element has been populated by such a game cast, and not just in the leads - performances as small as the woman operating the luxury liner check-in booth (who I think might be Sophia Goth, but I'm not confident) have the same zippy quality that the film thrives on. The leads matter a lot, of course: Oldman (who very amiably hates the film, to hear him talk about it in later years) in particular is an absolutely critical component of the whole, with his hambone All-American accent and tendency towards jumpy body language and an array of facial twitches. Milla Jovovich, in her first major screen appearance, embraces the material in a most fearless, trusting way. She plays a synthetic being named Leeloo, cloned from ancient tissue, central to the film's mysteries, and therefore necessarily alien and unknowable; most of her lines are in a consistent but incomprehensible language that Jovovich and Besson created together, and so it rests entirely on the tone of her voice, the speed with which she speaks, the hard, ice-cube set of her eyes as she regards the world around her (in a nice little touch, she encounters the majesty of Future New York for the first time when we do). I've grown to admire Jovovich's enormously potent screen presence very much over the years: she's not really a great actor in the way we usually mean it, but she uses her face better than the vast majority of movie stars in living memory, and she's never bettered her work in  The Fifth Element, where she frequently has absolutely nothing other than energy and presence to work with.

I've also come around, in a big way, on Chris Tucker's manic Ruby Rhod, easily my least-favorite part of the movie when I saw it in 1997; the character struck me as all shrieking and loud jokes, leaning into scaredy cat black people stereotypes and unbearably cartoonish drag queen shtick (though calling Ruby a "drag queen" is begging the question: the character is entirely post-gender, less because I think the filmmakers were trying to make a point, more because it seemed likely to them that the society of the future will care less about that kind of thing). And Tucker is still the most turned-on, overclocked element of a movie that's not afraid to sock it to us and then sock it to us again even harder, and he can be wearying as hell, but I've come around to thinking of him, and Ruby, as the legitimate heart of the film. Ruby's whole deal, after all, is to be an always-on force of willpower, an entertainer who will give us 1000% of their energy 1000% of the time, even in the middle of a life-threatening action setpiece.

And what is The Fifth Element, if not exactly the same thing? It's the ne plus ultra of the "Cinéma du Look" moment (though it is rather later than the period that term has ever been used to describe), a film terrified that we will be bored for even a fraction of a second, and so it constantly bombards us from all sides with its colorful visuals, Éric Serra's swashbuckling score (mixing cliché French motifs and cliché Egyptian motifs into a bombardment of flighty exoticism), punchy and often very dumb one-liners, and a grab bag of genres. It uses editing like a battering ram, punctuating jokes and line deliveries with jump cuts, and cross-cutting between conversations for nothing but the sheer pleasure of mixing and matching lines of dialogue like so many miniature exquisite corpses. Herein is a film willing and eager to interrupt the build-up of tension to its big action climax with an operatic performance, itself cross-cut with Jovovich's best handheld fight scene in the film -  feeling more than a little bit like a nod to founding "Cinéma du Look" entry Diva, directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. This everything-all-the-time approach is obviously exhausting and not exactly conducive to clear-cut storytelling, so it's not any surprise that the film has met with hostility over the years, but I don't know. Being totally overwhelmed by unabashed spectacle that comes from a place of enthusiasm, sincerity, and honesty isn't something you get to experience just every day, and The Fifth Element succeeds better than most films at the one thing I most demand of my popcorn movies: it presents something I had not seen before and would not likely have ever seen otherwise.

That being said, it helps that the film anchors itself with such a solid, square protagonist, whom I've managed to not speak about in nearly 2000 words, which speaks to the degree to which I value The Fifth Element as a story. That's Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas, special forces soldier-turned-NYC taxi driver, blue-collar everyman who gets plunged into the whirlwind of Besson's fantasies and then just tries to get through it all in one piece. He's the same kind of protagonist that a James Cameron or Michael Bay film might have, but intensified: the film's visuals, sense of humor, and overall performance style are all identifiably European, which makes Willis's meaty presence as Quintessential American Man stand out all the more. The film needs such a laid-back central figure to be anything other than pure eye candy, and Willis was better-suited than any other performer I could name to embody that figure. In all of his performances across his career, Willis's resting state is a smirking detachment, like he's just one turn to the camera way from asking the audience directly if we believe this shit. Here, with the aid of a director that Willis has spoken warmly of since, that gets mixed in with a sense of raw fun, like he doesn't believe this shit, but he's still amazed that he gets to be a part of it. He isn't exactly our entry point into the frantic world of The Fifth Element - from a plot standpoint, Jovovich serves that role much more clearly - but he is the one making quiet, sardonic comments about it as we move through, point out its excesses and humoring it (he's an excellent straight man to Tucker), while always keeping things from becoming too weightless. It's a perfect movie star turn that pins the movie to the ground and allows the rest of its fripperies to shine more against the context of live-action humanity than it ever could have done without him. I think I'd still love The Fifth Element for its extravagances regardless, but it's all on Willis that The Fifth Element becomes a masterpiece.