There have been reviews, articles, and retrospectives written about the 1980 whiff of a blockbuster "Flash Gordon," but few delve into the purity of the moviegoing experience: the bedazzled wonderment of the film that has fueled its underground success since the day it tanked in U.S. theaters. We could discuss the amplified artifice of the movie all day, but the bottom line is "Flash Gordon" is simply a marvelous potion of entertainment. It's a space opera with arias of thunder, performances of valor, and production design of the Gods. And now, finally, after years wandering the media wasteland, it's found a proper home on DVD.
The tale of Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), Dr. Zarkov (Topol) and their adventures on the planet Mongo, evading the clutches of the evil Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow in his finest hour, even in the face of his Bergman credits) is one for the ages, dating back to comic strip appearances and serials of the 1930s. The 1980 version pays only passing homage to the extensive history of hands-on-hips derring-do, instead rocketing forward on a "Star Wars" train of thought, yet embracing the sounds and fads of the era to inform its jubilant portrait of adventure in alien worlds.
"Flash Gordon" in the eyes of director Mike Hodges, or more accurately producer Dino De Laurentiis, is a Studio-54-in-space environment, hauling in miles of spandex and buckets of glitter to encrust this exotic motion picture, accurately reflecting the dwindling disco appeal of the time. Brought to life by master production overlord Danilo Donati, the ornate visual construction of the picture is astonishing to behold; the film literally explodes with a festival of colors and opulent costume design. It lends the movie a majestic spilled-cocaine imprint that's unmistakable and urges the film into distinctive areas of presentation George Lucas could never follow in his wildest dreams. Even if you loathe the film, you have to hand it to De Laurentiis for having the sheer nerve to marry family entertainment with production value more suited for an outer space version of "Caligula."
Heightening the film's contagious visual scheme are the brave performances, each one a testament to actor ingenuity and slight of hand. Sure, Jones has the misfortune of playing a blonde himbo (the poor bastard was dubbed on top of it too!), but he fills the quarterback-turned-revolutionary role with triumphant surf-school heroism. Anderson and Topol have the more flattering character arcs that require a continuous display of awe; Topol heading immediately north with his gracious enthusiasm and scientific mastery. More rollicking merriment is added to the frame by Brian Blessed, in a career-defining performance as Prince Vultan (the blustery leader of the Hawkmen), Timothy Dalton in full Errol Flynn mode as Prince Baron, and the wicked Klytus, played with perverse scarf-sniffing deliciousness by Peter Wyngarde.
However, there's a special place in my heart for Ornella Muti as the mischievous, bore-worm-hating, intergalactic sex kitten Princess Aura. Decked out in flame-red hotpants and blessed with an Italian sensuality that could melt the ice caps, Muti is truly the star of the show, personally responsible for pushing hordes of adolescent boys through puberty with her displays of white-hot Flash lust. She adds an exhibition of supernova sexuality to a motion picture that needs a careless, assuredly panty-free devil to Dale's wholesome, angelic future house frau.
And then there's Queen's famous score. Ah yes, those rock gods took time out of their busy world domination schedule to bestow "Flash" with a Godzilla-like sonic presence, wadding the picture up with outstanding rock and atmospheric numbers that flesh out the heroic qualities of the lead character and add a booming density to the action sequences. Sure, you have the "Flash! Ahh-ahh" title theme there to stand the test of time, but Queen goes for the throat often during the picture with the heaviest guitar sound of their career sending the Hawkmen in for the kill, or abusing their synth privileges following Flash into deep space. It's a heavenly score (not to knock composer Howard Blake's additional work), dare I suggest one of Queen's finest offerings of rock-cocksmen mastery.
Now, the word "camp" is tossed around quite a bit in any discussion of "Flash Gordon," and I have to be bitterly honest here, I just don't see it. Camp to me is an overbooked winking convention in a motion picture that underlines every move it makes. "Flash" exists in its own world, where ludicrous notions of fashion and courageousness are the norm on Mongo. I'll admit that Semple's screenplay contains a tablespoon of self-acknowledgment, but I prefer to be blissfully unaware of such nonsense, instead embracing the operatic quality of all the red-and-gold bigness, gorging myself on the larger-than-life twinkle and visual majesty the picture is serving on a spandex platter.
For the first time in R1, "Flash Gordon" is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio). It's been nine years since the film graced DVD and the improvement in picture quality is remarkable, even miles ahead of U.K. and French versions that fans have gobbled up in recent years. "Flash" is a visually explosive enterprise, and it seems the "Saviour of the Universe" DVD corrals most of that wild spectacle proficiently. Colors are dynamite and sharp and nearly every scene reveals new details previous DVDs couldn't handle (unfortunately, this same clarity highlights the fatigued and grainy special effects and matte work). Of course, it's not a full-blown restoration of the film, but "Flash" has finally earned some respect in the home entertainment world.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio experience for "Flash" is front heavy, but impressive for its age. Bursting through the mix are the Queen selections, which dominate at every turn. It's a simple sonic construct, but a wholly persuasive one.
Here's where Universal drops the ball. Heaven knows that a film this iconic and adored deserves the full-court-press of extras, yet the powers that be could only muster a feeble handful of supplemental features, and they are hardly representative of how much this film means to its fans. A crying shame.
First up is "Alex Ross, Renowned Comic Artist, on 'Flash Gordon'" (13 minutes), a featurette exploring the rabid fandom Ross holds for "Flash." A master of comic book art, Ross recalls his extensive history worshiping the film and the effect it holds on his work to this day. Warmly articulate, animated, and obsessive, Ross's thoughts are a treat to listen to, offering the picture an outside perspective that's unexpected and appreciated.
"Writing a Classic: Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr." (10 minutes) is a brief interview with a vitriolic Semple Jr., who proceeds to dig into the film as an unpolished creation without much artistic vision, employing a lead actor of dubious talent, and failing to connect with the "Star Wars" audience it was intended for due to zany Euro sensibilities. While I applaud his honesty, I'm having trouble understanding why the DVD producers elected to include this acidic recollection and not anything from the cast or crew. Seems like a waste of perfectly good DVD space.
"First Episode of the 'Flash Gordon' 1936 Serial" (20 minutes) is a vaguely appropriate supplementary item, but only for fans of the character, not the 1980 film. It's entertaining to watch the similarities between the two divergent creations, but a little giant-iguana-combat goes a long way, again filling out a DVD with fluff instead of jewels.
"'Flash Gordon' TV Show Trailer" promotes the upcoming Sci-Fi Channel program...with a 12-second-long title treatment. No footage, no music, no nothing. Keep in mind this is a "bonus feature" advertised on the back of the packaging. Yeesh.
Finally, the theatrical trailer is included.
Indeed, "Flash Gordon" is the savior of the universe, and, in over 25 years since release, the feature has found a home in the bosom of fans who appreciate a little sexualized stardust sprinkled on their acts of heroism and some fearless hard rock to goose this veritable Disneyland of sci-fi excitement. "Flash" is a rare bird indeed; a piece of glitzy cinema that defined the year it was created, yet is somehow timeless in its presentation, snowballing over the years into a cult masterpiece that's ignited the imaginations of millions.