Sunday, February 17, 2008

Guiltless Review: Flash Gordon


Wow its been forever since I wrote one of these, hope I remember how!

I got this DVD as a Christmas present but only got a chance to re-watch it a few weeks ago. Since then I've re-watched it quite a bit.

Say what you will about the 1980 ultra-camp version of Flash Gordon, it is a wonderfully crafted piece of comic book-inspired moviemaking for kids of all ages. Colorful, funny, sexy, and entertaining as hell.

In a way, Flash Gordon is the last gasp of old school, pre-Star Wars science fiction fantasy. Yes, technically it came out after Star Wars changed pretty much everything about sci-fi movies in 1977, but this film is a more direct reference to a much older tradition.

Star Wars itself was clearly inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930's, and embodies the same sense of fun and imagination. However, it takes these elements into a more stark and 'realistic' outer-space environment. Sure, its still pure fantasy, but Star Wars takes great care in not coating every spaceship and costume in a shiny, quasi-futuristic silver coating. Instead, it aims to show us weathered (almost dingy), believable technological trappings.

Flash Gordon '80, on the other hand, gleefully ignores the general paradigm that Star Wars established (and that just about every sci-fi fantasy since has followed). Basically, this movie makes no attempt to 'update' Flash's environment from what appeared in the 1930's, nor does it try to explain any of the technology in this universe. Instead, Flash Gordon (bless its campy soul) says to heck with 'realism' and gives us a booming, tacky, 'modern' (well, modern for 1980), re-presentation of garish costumes, cheesy looking spaceships, completely impractical weapons, general tackiness, and hawkmen! LOTS of hawkmen!

Flash Gordon, quarterback, New York Jets (Sam Jones) is flying back from vacation while chatting up travel agent/hot babe Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Meanwhile, Emperor of the Galaxy Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) is borrrrrred, and decides to have fun by causing all sorts of natural disasters on earth from what appears to be a sound mixing board.

Well yadda yadda yadda, one thing leads to another and eventually Flash, Dale, and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) end up on Ming's home planet of Mongo, trying to save earth. Will they succeed?!?! Well, I don't want to spoil it for you, but Flash is, after all: (que the Queen music) SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!!!

Laughs: 7
A very high score for a sci-fi fantasy flick. This film is pure camp; these are not 'so bad its good' laughs, these are very intentional, very goofy laughs with a surprisingly adult sensibility. My favorite laugh comes from Ming's wedding vows at the end ("Do you promise not to blast her into space? . . . . . until such time as you grow weary of her?").

Immersion: 10
Once our heroes' rocket travels to Mongo, the film's color palette basically explodes. The landscapes and palaces on Mongo are obviously fake and aggressively tacky. This is a film environment that is truly unlike anything seen before or since, and it has a definite, transportive quality.

Investment: 7
The main characters never behave like anything other than 2-dimensional plot devices, but the places they go and the things they do are so much fun, I still ended up wanting to see them succeed.

Twists: 9
Flash Gordon's serialized origins come through here, and many of his adventures in this movie are episodic in nature. If you think about everything that happens in the span of a few days in the film, its a bit mind boggling. Better yet, don't think about it and just enjoy the various daring deeds and narrow escapes.

Bizareness: 9
Wow! Producer Dino DeLaurentis really went all out on this one. The aforemetioned costumes and settings are spectacular. The various races, creatures and technology of Mongo comprise a hyper-real alternative universe. This is a place where bad guys melt when they die, guns shoot shiny golden hands, and hourglass sand runs the wrong way.

Also, did I mention that this movie has a very erotic undercurrent? For the lead bad guy in a movie that is at least partially aimed at children, Ming is a straight-up pimp! I mean its generally assumed the Emperor of the Galaxy is gonna have a harem stashed away somewhere, but Ming is really up front about it. First, he hauls away Dale "For our Pleasure!" after fondling her telekinetically with his ring. Then there are numerous references to date rape drugs he uses.

I haven't even mentioned Ming's daughter Aura yet (Ornella Muti). Aura is a kinky, manipulative, skank completely guided by her lust for sex and danger. She gets away with it because she's drop dead gorgeous and half-naked much of the time.

Thrills: 9
There is moderate violence and action throughout Flash Gordon, but the climactic battle sequence featuring a battalion of hawkmen assaulting a spaceship is what really brings this score up. Having seen it several times recently, I can honestly say there is no movie scene that matches its sheer awesome-ness. Its a triumph of imagination, art direction, editing, and that insane Queen soundtrack. Its paced beautifully, with a slow build-up, carefully presenting the elements involved. Then the intensity is driven up, punctuated by Prince Vultan's (Brian Blessed) booming voice. By the time the guitar riffs kick in, there is absolutely no way you can stop watching. Oh, hell, there's no way my description can do it justice so watch it for yourself here:

Most awesome scene in movie history

Final Word:
There are people who just don't get this version of Flash Gordon. People who must always look for everything to be explained and cannot suspend disbelief even for the sake of a brilliant camp classic (and if you read geeky film sites, these people are getting more and more annoying all the time). With the right attitude though, there is no movie as purely entertaining as Flash Gordon; thats right, I said it.