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Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Roan Group)

Roan Group // Unrated // May 25, 2004
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 7, 2004 | E-mail the Author
With a couple of weeks left before summer kicks in, I thought I'd give DVD Talk's screener pool a bit of a Spring cleaning while the term was still relevant and jot down quick takes on some of the titles we've overlooked.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe has apparently crept into the public domain, with Delta, VCI, Image Entertainment, Gotham Distribution, Laserlight Video, Pro-Active Entertainment, 3-H Entertainment, Ventura Distribution, and probably a half-dozen other companies having littered store shelves with various DVD releases. The latest to take a digital shot at this 1940 serial is Troma's Roan Group Archival Entertainment. Universal's final Flash Gordon serial has Olympic gold winner and B-movie mainstay Buster Crabbe starring as the fearless hero. Ming the Merciless has returned with a stranglehold on the universe, beating Earth into submission as he bombards the planet with his Death Dust. The destructive initial wave sent the world into a panic, but one of Ming's scientist henchmen has refined it to the point where the dust only kills people intelligent enough to rise up against his Mongol forces, leaving Ming with potentialls tens of millions of mindless minions to enslave. The only cure for Ming's purple plague exists in the inhospitably icy Frigia, and Ming pits his legions of minions against Flash and his friends. Joining Flash in his quest are girlfriend Dale Arden, Ming's daughter Aura, Prince Barin, and brilliant scientist Dr. Zarkov. The megalomaniacal Ming's nefarious schemes are not so easily derailed, and Flash and company are pitted against explosive androids, a tribe of vengeful rock men, ravenous giant lizards, and internal treachery, with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance.

I have to admit to being largely ignorant of serials, never having watched one in its entirety until now. I'd frequently heard that these sorts of vintage sci-fi serials were a massive source of inspiration for George Lucas' Star Wars, which is evident from even a passing glance of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. The stylized transitions from scene to scene, the tilted crawl that opens each segment, and even portions of the score all reminded me of Lucas' films. (Fans of these serials should be pleased to learn that Roan's DVD includes the original Universal logo and dispenses with the voiceover narration added to the crawl over the years.) The special effects are hopelessly dated, consisting of reactions to off-screen lizards, rockets on strings, paper mache costumes, reversed dialogue, and nicks in the negative. Its low-budget approach is all part of its charm, of course, aided greatly by the earnestness of its performances. It's also amusing to see Flash and his friends disguise themselves in every other installment, or to have Flash toss out a "Good girl" whenever someone without a Y chromosome agrees with him. Despite the sum total hovering around four hours, the serial structure results in a nimble pace. Each segment ends with a cliffhanger, and the structure puts Flash in so many different locales and in so many different flavors of peril that the twelve installments never feel like just more of the same. A frigid ice kingdom, Ming's palace, rocky caverns, a medieval throwback of a forest, a wasteland reduced to scorched earth by one of Ming's new weapons, a desert teeming with tribesmen disguised as rocks, high-speed aerial battles...I realize that spouting off a word like "fun" is meaningless and subjective, but that's the first descriptive term that instantly leaps to mind. Readers with an appreciation for vintage sci-fi and ham-fisted action should consider spending an afternoon tearing through this disc.

Video: All twelve installments of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe have been packed onto one dual-layered DVD. That adds up to somewhere in the vicinity of four hours, quite a bit to pile onto a single disc. The average bitrate remains respectably high throughout, but the image still suffers. Fine detail looks like it's been smoothened out somewhat, perhaps to ease compression concerns, and edges frequently have a slightly jagged, aliased appearance. Light mosquito noise was also prevalent. I watched this DVD on a 36" display, and although those issues were easily noticeable, they weren't enough to really distract. Viewers with larger sets will probably find them to be much more of a nuisance. Authoring concerns aside, the source prints look to be in pretty decent shape. The source material not surprisingly exhibits some wear, but the specks, nicks, and assorted damage on the prints aren't overly abundant nor are they particularly intrusive. Virtually every type of film-related flaw listed in the DVD Reviewer Handbook can be spotted at least once, but they're easily overlooked.

Audio: The monaural Dolby Digital audio is also decent, free of the crackles, hiss, and pops I went in expecting. I was even impressed by the punchiness of the bass; even though the serial is more than six decades old, its many explosions still elicited a decent rattle from my subwoofer. The dialogue has a consistently edgy quality throughout, to the point where some lines are difficult to fully discern. Still, the soundtrack is reasonably robust given its age.

Supplements: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe has been churned out on DVD numerous times by a variety of companies, and like most of those releases, the Roan Group's DVD doesn't offer much in the way of extras. Some production notes are the extent on it. No inserts, no animated menus...pretty bare-bones. Particularly enthusiastic fans of star Buster Crabbe might want to keep an eye out for VCI's DVD set, which includes interviews with Crabbe, footage of him taking home the Gold medal at the Olympics, and vintage TV spots.

These twenty minute installments originally were separated by a week's time when they were shown theatrically on Saturday mornings, and Roan's DVD allows viewers to either watch all twelve in succession or select one at a time.

Conclusion: Four hours of pulpy fun make Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, though the sparse extras and limited replay value leave this DVD probably better suited as a rental.
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