BOOKS . . . THE WISDOM OF THE BODY: The new book (Knopf; 395 pages; $26.95) by Yale’s distinguished surgeon and bioethicist Sherwin B. Nuland presents an anatomy of human life, vividly illustrated by case histories from his wide operating-room experience. The result is a book -- part basic textbook, part memoir and meditation -- that is wholly secular yet sublimely uplifting. Although not a religious man in any formal sense, Nuland is overwhelmed with awe at how the human body works. As he writes, “We are, of necessity, miracles with flaws.” The basic miracle, as Nuland describes it, is that the body’s different systems -- cardiovascular, reproductive and so on -- work together in a seemingly chaotic but balanced harmony. The flaws of the human miracle are the diseases that attack these systems. As Nuland sees it, the surgeon’s role is to assist the body in mounting a concerted defense against the intruders, be they cancerous cells or traumatic injuries. "Nuland generally writes with a clarity that any journalist can envy," says TIME's John Elson. "Still, the eyelids of the scientifically challenged may droop a bit amid the book’s vital but unlyrical nuts-and-bolts background passages."
MOVIES . . . THE FIFTH ELEMENT: "To say 'The Fifth Element,' even though it is set in 2259, induces a powerful sense of déjà vu is to say nothing useful about it," says TIME's Richard Schickel. "For it is science fiction in the postmodern -- well, anyway, the post–'Blade Runner' -- mode. Its true subjects are art direction, special effects and the show-off panache with which its director and co-writer, Luc Besson, deploys them." Besson's energy and inventiveness are considerable and, up to a point, quite entertaining. Indeed, one could argue that his work offers a distinct kinetic improvement over classic sci-fi, generally a talky and static genre with its space voyagers forever standing around discussing whatever strange phenomena they encountered in their travels, and none too subtly offering futuristic metaphors to help the audience understand. On the other hand, Besson, like most pop futurists these days, has nothing but ironic knowingness to replace this old-fashioned high-mindedness. And eventually one comes to miss the moral earnestness of an H.G. Wells and the substance it imparted to his fantasies. Evil (and, for that matter, good) should be something more than a spectacular design conceit. After the nice and not-nice E.T.s wow us with their first striking appearances, they have an obligation to grip us in slightly more profound ways. Although the cast, led by Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, tries hard, they don't make a deep impression. "Like everyone and everything else in this movie, Willis runs hard and fast and with a certain style," notes Schickel. "But neither he nor his director can entirely disguise the fact that they are essentially running on empty, that the element missing from 'The Fifth Element' is moral and dramatic conviction."