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Comic book movies now seem to comprise 50% of Hollywood's cinematic output, a major move that probably began back with 1978's Superman: The Movie. The smashing success of that film sent the studios scrambling to review their contract dealings with DC, Marvel, and King Features. Producer Dino de Laurentiis may have felt he had something of an inside track, having visited the world of adult comics in his earlier Barbarella and Diabolik. Directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Pulp, Croupier), 1980's Flash Gordon is a dazzling production that relies too heavily on a camp sensibility. Often amusing but never particularly witty, this updating of Alex Raymond's 1930 space opera has a huge vacuum at its center, where an exciting hero should be.
There's nothing cheap about this candy colored romp into a fanciful retro-universe. Flamboyant visuals and energetic supporting performances help make Flash Gordon an enjoyable, grandiose spectacle. Universal's Blu-ray repeats the extras of an earlier "Savior of the Universe" edition, but the HD transfer is the star here -- the super-saturated color cinematography of Gilbert Taylor looks like old Technicolor at its gaudiest.
Our planet is in a terrible fix. Evil galactic Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) amuses himself by threatening our planet with imminent destruction. To save the earth, fanatical scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) pilots a spaceship to Ming's interloping planet Mongo, bringing along superstar football quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and spirited Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). In Ming's gaudy palace the trio witnesses the reign of terror by which Ming keeps his various chieftains in line, especially Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen (Brian Blessed) and the Robin Hood-like Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) of Arborea. Ming brainwashes Zarkov, connives to marry Dale and orders that Flash be executed, but his plans go awry. Narrowly escaping various dangers, Flash motivates Ming's minions to revolt and inspires the Emperor's spoiled daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), a menace in her own right, to appreciate the benefits of virtue.
Flash Gordon has an agreeably fast pace and spirited performances. Lorenzo Semple Jr. pitches the script at a level almost as dumb as the original 1930s serial, a tack that puts pressure on the actors. For the most part they bring the characters excitingly to life. Max von Sydow is clearly having the time of his life, hamming up the villainy of the quasi-oriental Ming, while Timothy Dalton is likeably single-minded in his Errol Flynn-styled heroics. Italian minx Ornella Muti (The Most Beautiful Wife, Swann in Love) slithers and seduces as Aura, reminding us that the original Ming-Aura relationship must have been lifted from Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories. Mariangela Melato of Swept Away ... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August is underused as one of Ming's female torturers. The character most into the spirit of the show is Brian Blessed as the jovial barbarian Prince Vultan. Blessed looks perfectly comfortable in a set of outsized Hawkman wings, whether bashing in heads or bellowing with laughter.
Against the colorful aliens, the earth folk have their hands full just making an impression. Topol is more a convenient wise-ass than a scientist, cleverly tricking Ming's brainwashers and otherwise staying out of the way. Melody Anderson's Dale Arden is split between playing cheerleader for the hero ("Go! Flash! GO!") and finding ways to delay her bedroom date with the sinister Ming. That part of the fantasy requires Dale to dress up in robes and jewels appropriate to a concubine of Mongo, a costume that seems to embolden her even further. When the royal handmaidens present Dale with an elixir to make her wedding night with Ming less revolting, Dale takes a taste and loves it. Flash Gordon mines an uneasy vein of adult humor that plays with lightweight verbal innuendo while presenting Mongo as a veritable Planet of the Fetish People. The kink factor figures heavily in the costume design, especially the inventive undergarments of the various vixens of Mongo. Verily.
Unfortunately, Flash Gordon lacks an inspiring Flash, a crippling detriment. A big muscle-bound blond, Sam Jones looks as though he could have been the model for "He-Man" in the Masters of the Universe toy line. His voice has been completely overdubbed, robbing him of any chance of projecting a personality. The script interprets Flash as a one-dimensional gee-whiz Good Guy. Wearing a "Flash!" logo on his chest, Gordon is his own product placement. Oddly, despite some embraces and a pledge to marry and raise babies Flash and Dale are not promoted as a particularly romantic couple. When Flash catches the oversexed Aura hoping to sneak a peek at his bare butt, he just looks sheepish. This from a guy wearing leather hot pants. As if taking a cue from the Disco fever craze of the times, Flash Gordon's appeal is Camp in the original gay sense of the word.
Talented Italian designers make all of De Laurentiis' comic book movies visually arresting, and some of the elaborate work in Flash Gordon is truly eye-popping. Moving beyond the psychedelic cosmos of Barbarella, Danilo Donati cooks up an outer space that resembles a melted artist's easel, a vast cosmos filled with clouds of yellow and orange. The various palaces are gigantic structures with mirrored floors and vaulted ceilings, upon which prance armies of servants and soldiers in bizarre costumes. Peter Wyngarde's face is completely hidden behind a chrome mask and the diminutive Deep Roy trots along behind Princess Aura as her personal pet. Squadrons of Hawkmen fly in formation like the monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, and a man-eating monster lives in the marshes of Arborea.
By weird coincidence, many occurrences in Flash Gordon 'resonate' with similar events in Barbarella and the later De Laurentiis production Dune. The Hawkmen of Flash fly on feathery wings, just like Barbarella's angel friend Pygar. The exaggerated worship of evil in Flash also reminds us of Barbarella's perverse city, with its bisexual queen played by Anita Pallenberg. In both Flash and Dune the helpless heroes are spirited out of palaces to safety by spaceship. Both films have slave functionaries whose eyes have been pierced by mechanical devices. Flash must stick his hand into a deadly tree trunk, a scene similar to Kyle McLachlan enduring the 'box of pain' in Dune. The show leaves us with the "dead" Ming still laughing on the soundtrack, mimicking the end of Diabolik.
All of De Laurentiis's films use rock music, and the late-70s disco-inflected Queen compositions for Flash Gordon push the film further into the pre-Aids pansexual 'big party' atmosphere. The color, the action, the women and some of the jokes are certainly entertaining, but the movie never wholly catches fire. Flash Gordon needs an exciting action hero at its center, and without it something essential is missing.
Universal's Blu-ray of Flash Gordon lags several years behind a release on the now defunct HD-DVD format. The terrific HD transfer makes the film look like a glossy magazine layout -- the gaudy colors practically leap off the screen. Fans of the soundtrack ("He'll save every one of us!') will appreciate the DTS Master 5.1 audio..
The show repeats the extras of the "Savior of the Universe" DVD edition. Comic artist Alex Ross heaps reams of questionable praise onto the movie, and then happily moves on to a number of interesting specific observations of the film's art direction. The respected screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Pretty Poison, The Parallax View, the Batman TV show) appears to have been coached to infer that millions of fans secretly think Flash is the greatest film ever made, and surely the next big cult rediscovery. Semple's big De Laurentiis pictures were the 1976 King Kong and a limp remake of Hurricane. 1
The really interesting extra is the first episode (Chapter One: Planet of Peril!) of the 1936 Buster Crabbe serial. It's clunky, sure, and awfully similar to the Semple story. I understand that it was one of the most popular serials ever, and hooked a generation of kids on Sci-Fi and fantasy pulp fiction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flash Gordon rates:
1. In 2001 I edited a montage for the Oscars show. One of the other montages celebrated the fabulous filmic heritage of Dino De Laurentiis, who was being given some kind of achievement award. Beyond Dino's couple of Federico Fellini movies, what could the editor show? Scenes from films like The White Buffalo made the montage play like a pathetic joke.
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