Police light


This post (the first in what is going to amount to The Fifth Element Police Week. What is this, sweeps?) is going to veer to the edge of interaction design, getting into the Venn overlap of industrial design and wearable tech.

The police seen throughout New York each wear uniforms that feature a large, circular, glowing light over the right side of their chest.

There are only two things to say that’s positive about this police light. One: Yes, it looks cool. Two: It certainly gives narby citizens a clear, attention-getting signal that something is up. This might be OK for community relations officers, who are only ever interfacing with the public. But when it comes to dealing with actual criminals, it’s a terrible idea.


It’s a terrible idea because of its placement

Imagine this scene from the chief’s perspective. When he addresses Leeloo down the pipe as she’s standing on the ledge of the building, he is in an isosceles stance, with his shoulders perpendicular to the target and his weapon held in front of his heart. This common stance would place the weapon directly in the glow of the circle. This means that his forearms and weapon will have the brightest illumination in his field of vision and be distracting. This might be manageable by coating his uniform and the back of the weapon with a super black coating to absorb much of this light. But, depending on the distance of the target, it is also likely to place the perp in shadow, making them harder to see and harder to hit.

Looking at the officer on the right, we see he is taking a different stance. He is “bladed” to the target, closer to a Weaver stance, with his body turned a bit sideways. This stance turns the light to the adjacent wall, which minimizes the backscatter and perp-shadow effects, but also aims the light toward his fellow officer, possibly distracting him or her. That’s a pretty crappy design. But wait, it gets worse.


It’s a terrible idea because it’s a giant, glowing target

What’s worse is to imagine the scene from the perspective of the perp, say, the Mondosahwans in the airport. They want to specifically shoot the police in the crowd and all they have to do is shoot towards the glowing discs. That’s right, the police in 2263 are actually wearing attention-drawing targets. Admittedly, if you are going to get shot in the line of duty, you’d rather draw fire away from the head to a place with a solid slab of bone and lots of body armor. But why draw their fire in the first place?

As we saw in another post, Zorg believes in the fallacy/parable of the broken window, and so favors a bit of destruction that encourages market activity. We also know from the film that he has a lot of control over the NYPD. It might be that he’s deliberately sabotaging the police through this design to encourage the sale of more body armor and weapons, but are we to believe that the cops themselves are willing to go along with this? C’mon. They’re smarter than this.

Improve it with a little bit of smarts

Outfit the light with a little agentive smarts, and most of these problems could be fixed. The light could simply dim when it’s counterproductive to have it illuminated. Proximity sensors can sense when the officer’s arm is in the way. Context aware sensors can sense when it might blind another officer. It would take a lot of smarts to know when the officer is being targeted by a weapon, but certainly simple audio sensors should shut it off in the sound of gunfire.

Pneumatic Mail


Korben receives physical mail to a transparent, flat pneumatic tube in his apartment. When new mail arrives, he hears a whoosh, the envelope drops into place, and the plastic material that the tube is made of becomes edge-lit with the film’s signature orange color.


To retrieve the letter, Korben lifts a hinged side and slides the letter out. The tube hangs at from the ceiling about waist high, to the left of his window desk on the far side of his apartment from the door.


The positioning of the tube is nice as the desk is one place he’s likely to put information received there to use: reading and storing if necessary. Another location might have been near the door, to catch his attention in a physical location that he frequents. But infrequent use is not too much of a problem since the edge lighting should catch his attention.

His attention could be drawn more aggressively to the tube by having the light blink a few times at the arrival of new mail, or when he enters the apartment. Presuming the system knows the importance of a given letters—such as when he is fired from Zorg industries—it could offer an additional audio cue, such as a simple statement of "urgent" using the same voice that announces his allotment of cigarettes in the morning.

Another tiny improvement might be to remove the flap entirely, but adding a grip gap at the edge, on the apartment-facing side of the tube. Presuming this wouldn’t mess with the pneumatic or stability of the letter in place, it would save Korben from having to target and raise the flap. Grabbing mail would just be easier.

Oddly, the edge lighting does not disappear when Korben retrieves letters, which is odd given the slight context-awareness that the rest of the apartment displays. The light should turn off or fade once the letter is removed.


The stage managers’ main raison d’être is to course-correct if and when victims begin to deviate from the path required of the ritual.

This begins with the Prep team, long before the victims enter the stage. For example, Jules’ hair dye and Marty’s laced pot. These corrections become more necessary and intense once the victims go on stage.

Making sure there are sexy times

The ritual requires that a sexy young couple have sexy times on stage before they suffer and die. “The mood” can be ruined by many things, but control has mechanisms to cope with most of them. We see three in the movie.


The temperature can’t be too hot or too cold, but this isn’t something that can be set and forgot. What counts as the right temperature is a subjective call for the people involved and their circumstances, such as being drunk, or amount and type of clothes worn. Fortunately, the video-audio panopticon lets the stage managers know when a victim speaks about this directly, and do something about it. The moment Jules complains, for instance, Sitterson is able to reach over to a touch-screen display and tap the temperature a few degrees warmer.

Sitterson heats things up.

The gauge is an interesting study. It implies a range possible between 48 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, each of which is uncomfortable enough to encourage different behaviors in the victims, without the temperature itself being life-threatening.

Moreover, we see that it’s a “blind” control. Before Sitterson taps it, he is only shown the current temperature as a blue rectangle that fills up four bars and that it is exactly 64 degrees. But if he knew he wanted it to be 76 degrees, what, other than experience or training, tells him where he should touch to get to that desired new temperature? Though the gauge provides immediate feedback, it still places a burden on his long-term memory. And for novice users, such unlabeled controls require a trial-and-error method that isn’t ideal. Even the slim area of white coloring at the top, which helpfully indicates temperatures warmer than cooler, appears too late to be useful.

Better would be to have the color alongside or under the gauge with smaller numbers indicated along its length such that Sitterson could identify and target the right temperature on the first try.


The next thing that can risk the mood is a lack of a victim’s amorous feelings. Should someone not be “feeling it,” Control can pipe sex pheromones to areas on stage. We see Hadley doing this by operating a throttle lever on the electronic-era control panel. After Hadley raises this lever, we see small plumes of mist erupt from the mossy forest floor that Jules and Curt are walking across.

Hadley introduces pheromones to the forest air.

This control, too, is questionable. Let’s first presume it’s not a direct control, like a light switch, but more of a set-point control, like a thermostat. Similar to the temperature gauge above, this control misses some vital information for Hadley to know where to set the lever to have the desired amount of pheromone in the air, like a parts-per-million labeling along the side. Perhaps this readout occurs on a 7-segment readout nearby or a digital reading on some other screen, but we don’t see it.

There is also no indication about how Hadley has specified the location for the pheromone release. It’s unlikely that he’s releasing this everywhere on stage, lest this become a different sort of ritual altogether. There must be some way for him to indicate where, but we don’t see it in use. Perhaps it is one of the lit square buttons to his right.

An interesting question is why the temperature gauge and pheromone controls, which are similar set-point systems, use not just different mechanisms, but mechanisms from different eras. Certainly such differentiation would help the stage managers’ avoid mistaking one for the other, and inadvertently turn a cold room into an orgy, so perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to avoid this kind of mistake.


The final variable that stands in the way of Jules’ receptiveness (the authors here must acknowledge their own discomfort in having to write about this mechanistic rape in our standard detached and observational tone) is the level of light. After she complains that it is too dark, Hadley turns a simple potentiometer and the “moonlight” on a soft bed of moss behind them grows brighter.

Control responds to Jules’ objection to the darkness.

This, too, is a different control than the others; though it controls what is essentially a floating-point variable. But since it is more of a direct control than the other two, its design as a hard-stop dial makes sense, and keeps it nicely differentiated from the others.

Marty’s Subliminal Messages

Over the course of the movie, several times we hear subliminal messages spoken to directly control Marty. We never see the inputs used by Control, but they do, at least on one occasion, actually influence him, and is one of the ways the victims are nudged into place.

Marty breaks the fourth wall

In addition to Dana & Curt’s almost not getting it on, another control-room panic moment comes when Marty accidentally breaks a lamp and finds one of the tiny spy cameras embedded throughout the cabin. Knowing that this level of awareness or suspicion could seriously jeopardize the scenario, Hadley bolts to a microphone where he says, “Chem department, I need 500 ccs of Thorazine pumped into room 3!”

Marty finds a spy camera

Hadley speaks a command to the Chem department

Careful observers will note while watching the scene that a menu appears on a screen behind him as he’s stating this. The menu lists the following four drugs.

  • Cortisol (a stress hormone)
  • Pheromones (a category of hormonal social signals, most likely sex pheromones)
  • Thorazine (interestingly, an antipsychotic known to cause drowsiness and agitation)
  • Rhohyptase (aka Rhohypnol, the date rape drug)

Given that content, the timing of the menu is curious. It appears, overlaid on the victim monitoring screen, the moment that Hadley says “500.” (Before he can even specify “Thorazine.”) How does it appear so quickly? Either there’s a team in the Chem department also monitoring the scene, and who had already been building a best-guess menu for what Hadley might want in the situation and they just happened to push it to Hadley’s screen at that moment; Or there’s an algorithmic voice- and goal-awareness system that can respond quickly to the phrase “500 ccs” and provide the top four most likely options. That last one is unlikely, since…

  • We don’t see evidence of it anywhere else in the movie
  • Hadley addresses the Chem department explicitly
  • We’d expect him to have his eyes on the display, ready to make a selection on its touch surface, if this was something that happened routinely

But, if we were designing the system today with integrated voice recognition capabilities, it’s what we’d do.

Curt suggests they stick together

After the attack begins on the cabin itself, Curt wisely tells the others, “Look, we’ve got to lock this place down…We’ll go room by room, barricade every window and every door. We’ve got to play it safe. No matter what happens, we have to stay together.” Turns out this is a little too wise for Hadley’s tastes. Sitterson presses two yellow, back-lit buttons on his control panel to open vents in the hallway, that emit a mist. As Curt passes by the vents and inhales, he pauses, turns to the others and says, “This isn’t right…This isn’t right, we should split up. We can cover more ground that way.”

Sitterson knocks some sense out of Curt.

This two-button control seems to indicate drug (single dose) and location, which is sensible. But if you are asking users to select from different variables, it’s a better idea to differentiate them by clustering and color, to avoid mistakes and enable faster targeting.

Locking the doors

Once the victims are in their rooms, Hadley acknowledges it’s time to, “Lock ‘em in.” Sitterson flips a safety cover and presses a back-lit rocker switch, which emits a short beep and bolts the doors to all the victims’ rooms at the same time.

Sitterson bolts the victims’ doors.

Marty in particular notices the loud “clunk” as the bolts slide into place. He tests the door and is confounded when he finds it is, in fact, locked tight. Control’s earlier concern about tipping their hand seems to matter less and less, since this is a pretty obvious manipulation.

The edge of the world

Bolted doors pale in comparison to the moment when Curt, Dana, and Holden violently encounter the limits of the stage. After the demolition team seals the tunnel to prevent escape that way, Curt tries to jump the ravine to the other side so he can fetch help. Unfortunately for him, the ravine is actually an electrified display screen, showing a trompe-l’œil illusion of the far side. By trying to jump the ravine, Curt unwittingly commits suicide by slamming into it.

Curt slams into the edges of the “world” of the cabin.

The effect of the screen is spectacular, full of arcs zipping along hexagonal lines and sparks flying everywhere. Dana and Holden rush to the edge of the cliff to watch him tumble down its vast, concave surface. It seems that if you’ve come this far, Control isn’t as concerned about tipping its hand as it is finishing the job.