"Flash – ah ahhhhhhh
Saviour of the universe
Flash – ah ahhhhhh
He'll save ev'ry one of us"
When George Lucas couldn't afford the rights to his favorite childhood comic character, he made Star Wars instead as a tribute to the spirit of Saturday matinee movie serials, and the rest is cinematic history. Dino de Laurentiis, having much deeper pockets and hoping to cash in on the new resurgence of sci-fi adventure, bought up the rights to that character and produced his own lavish revival of Flash Gordon, a retro-fabulous fantasy swashbuckler with its tongue firmly in cheek.
Dolph Lundgren look-alike Sam J. Jones stars as Flash, the red-blooded, all-American football star inadvertently caught up in galactic adventure. When the Earth is put at the mercy of an evil weather machine from outer space, our studly but dim-witted quarterback is tricked into boarding a rocketship bound for planet Mongo by loony scientist Dr. Zarkof (Fiddler on the Roof Oscar nominee Topol), and soon finds himself face to face with Ming the Merciless, ruler of the galaxy and a villain who clearly lives up to his name. Certainly not about to let his home planet get destroyed by some spacy psycho, Flash immediately dashes into action like any good space-faring hero. He must escape from captivity, seduce the Princess, brave untold dangers, unite the various factions of Mongo against their dictator, rescue the damsel in distress, risk his life in battle, and face off against the evil Ming with little time to spare before the moon crashes into Earth. How can any one man do so much?
"Flash – ah ahhhhhh
He's a miracle!"
Max von Sydow hams it up with delicious glee as the seethingly vile Ming. Joining him are many favorite characters from the original Alex Raymond comic strip and old movie serials, including girlfriend Dale Arden (Melody Anderson, a dead ringer for Carol Hughes from the 1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe), the hawkman Vultan (Brian Blessed, bellowing his role with even more hammy delight than von Sydow), and the dashing Robin Hood-like Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, future James Bond). If Sam Jones isn't much of an actor, he nonetheless manages to convey an appropriate note of dopey earnestness perfectly in keeping with movie serial tradition. Keep an eye out for a no-line walk-on from Robbie Coltrane at the beginning, and yes that dwarf named Fellini (an obnoxiously jokey reference that director Mike Hodges says he regrets) is Deep Roy, the scene-stealing Oompa Loompa in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Backed by a rocking soundtrack from Queen featuring some of the corniest lyrics the band ever performed, the movie is a good-natured, big budget cheesefest that harkens back to 1930s matinee serials with their Art Deco designs, hokey miniature effects, stilted acting and dialogue, and outrageous plotting. It also has a fair share of de Laurentiis' own camp classic Barbarella in the mix (minus the sex), especially all the lava lamp swirling skylines. The production is a riot of gaudy colors, the comic strip sets and costumes as chintzy as they are ornate and expensive. The picture collapses into an overwrought spectacle at the end and doesn't have a brain in its sparkly little head, but it sure is fun to watch.
Released in 1980, the same year as The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas of course won out and Flash floundered at the box office. Audiences at the time, at least those not dropping LSD and grooving on the trippy visuals, had no idea what to make of the picture. For whatever reason, retro sci-fi and fantasy are a hard sell for the teenage theater crowd and also led to the financial disappointment of later similarly-themed productions such as The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (even Peter Jackson's monumental King Kong remake has had trouble living up to expectations). Fortunately, home video is often kind to such misunderstood projects, and Flash Gordon grew a cult audience over time who appreciated the way it recreated the goofy charm of old movie serials while also capturing the imagination of a new generation of children and their parents.
Previously released in Region 1 by Universal in non-anamorphic letterbox format with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, Flash Gordon has now received a remastered Silver Anniversary Edition from Momentum Pictures in the UK. Packaged in a fancy SteelBook case, the disc is coded for Region 2 playback in the PAL video format and will require compatible equipment to operate.
The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. The picture is very sharp and detailed with no discernable edge enhancement artifacts. There's a hair visible at the top of the frame during the opening, but the source elements are otherwise perfectly clean. Many of the visual effects shots are grainy, but this is an artifact of the old optical compositing and can't be helped. Likewise, the stretched comic book artwork during the opening credits is part of the movie, not a video transfer flaw.
Colors are clean but unfortunately don't pop off the screen as vibrantly as they should. The picture is mastered just a bit too bright, fading the colors and flesh tones, and exposing matte lines and wires to view. To be sure, the anamorphic transfer has a lot of strengths over the old release, however it still falls shy of being a definitive presentation for the movie.
The soundtrack has also been remastered into both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround. Although the movie did have a 6-channel sound mix for 70mm screenings during its original theatrical run, both audio options on this DVD sound like a 2-channel recording that has been processed into artificial 5.1. The tracks (especially the DTS version) have a fair amount of bass and the Queen score fills the soundstage, but the sound is a bit shrill and song lyrics are sometimes muddy. The 4% speedup inherent to PAL video is often noticeable during the music.
Dialogue is very forward in the mix, sounding like bad ADR, and is distractingly directional (anytime a shot cuts away from a speaking character, their dialogue shifts to the surround speakers). Surround activity is almost entirely monaural, so it is advised to disable any Dolby-EX or DTS-ES decoding or the entire back soundstage will collapse to the rear center speakers.
Optional English subtitles are available.
Unfortunately, the DVD starts with an obnoxious anti-piracy commercial that cannot be skipped or fast-forwarded by any means. When you finally get to them, the disc's animated menus play in an annoyingly short loop.
The "Extras" section of the disc begins with a theatrical trailer, cropped to 16:9 but anamorphically enhanced. Also found here is a photo gallery. Of more interest is the 30-minute Mike Hodges Interview. The director is surprisingly erudite for the maker of such a camp classic. Hodges discusses his background and career from Get Carter through to Croupier, and still sounds bemused and amazed that he ever wound up working for Dino de Laurentiis on a comic book fantasy picture.
A very cool inclusion is the 20-minute Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial episode from 1940 starring Buster Crabbe, presented in its original 4:3 black & white with mono sound. The sets, models, and acting are all a blast.
Hidden in the "Setup" menu where you might not think to look for them are two audio commentaries. The first track by actor Brian Blessed is very entertaining, though does become repetitive after a while. Blessed was a childhood fan of the Buster Crabbe serials and considered it a lifelong dream to have been cast in the movie as his favorite character, Vultan. He's still a hugely enthusiastic fan of the film and marvels in wonder at just about every shot: "I think this film is as near-perfect as you can get it." Director Mike Hodges delivers the second commentary in a more analytical and informative fashion, discussing the difficulties in balancing a serious adventure narrative with tongue-in-cheek camp humor: "Dino de Laurentiis really thought it was a serious film, which I found very puzzling."
The SteelBook case also includes a nice booklet with some notes on the origin of the character and the movie's production.
No ROM supplements have been included.
A movie not so much "good" as it is nonetheless enormously entertaining and endlessly repeatable, Flash Gordon is ideal DVD fare and finally gets a respectable (if still imperfect) treatment. An anamorphic transfer, DTS sound, and two commentaries make a great package, and at the time of this writing Amazon UK has the price reduced to a bargain value even after currency conversion and international shipping. The disc is highly recommended for region-free viewers. Others will have to wait to see if Universal ever gets their act together and releases a similar edition here in the US (no indication of such at present).