The science fiction films of 1980 fit a variety of needs. For those looking for an existential experience there was Ken Russell's Altered States; for the sequel lovers in all of us, there was The Empire Strikes Back and Superman II (two of the best); for a more real world feel you could turn to The Final Countdown for your fix.
There was one title that stood apart from all of those. It wasn't an original outing nor was it a sequel, in fact it was anything but a serious movie. Flash Gordon exploded onto the screen in a blast of candy-colored campiness in December of 1980. Now, nearly 27 years later, Flash Gordon has gotten a DVD release worthy of its technicolor insanity.
The character of Flash Gordon has been a mainstay of science fiction since his first appearance back in 1936. Comic books, theatrical serials, cartoons — he's influenced all manner of media. With the massive impact that Star Wars had in 1977, it was only a matter of time before Flash was resurrected for the big screen. Whether or not Flash Gordon is what the fans wanted is probably up for debate. What isn't up for debate is the fact that it is a lot of goofy fun.
I will admit to not being well versed in Flash Gordon lore, so I am not certain how closely this mirrors any of the prior incarnations. Despite that (a fact that I plan on correcting), this movie feels right, like a tribute to the old Buster Crabbe serials. It embraces its roots, using camp to its advantage.
The story is simple. Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), ruler of Mongo, decides to cheer himself up by picking on Earth. He causes all manner of natural disasters, before sending the moon out of its orbit and on a collision course for Earth. On the surface, scientists are rubbishing the thought of any danger following a surprise lunar eclipse. Nope, no problems here. Leave it to the mad scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), to figure it out.
Fortunately, Dr. Zarkov has a plan to save the Earth. The problem lies in him being crazy, and his assistant has no desire to head off into space in Zarkov's personal space rocket. It just so happens that New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), and the lovely Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), happen to be crash landing on top of his remote lair. This dynamic duo will prove the perfect helpers to get his ship off the ground. A quick kidnapping later, and the three are headed off into the swirling colors of space.
No sooner are they in space than they are being dragged down to planet Mongo and brought before Ming. Flash, Dale, and Zarkov find themselves in a fight for, not only Earth, but their lives. What follows is a series of double-crosses and team-ups that will ultimately lead to Flash becoming the "Savior of the Universe."
There is a distinctly and purposefully cheesy look to the movie. It is big, colorful, dumb, and the models look like models. It is not a movie that is looking to advance the state of science fiction, or offer up any deep philosophical understanding. Flash Gordon is all flash (sic) and no substance. It is a world of impossibly ornate costumes, characters of little substance, and some of the worst dialogue you're likely to hear. It is also a world where the hero engages in a football game with Ming's soldiers, and battles a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton with a whip!
For all of the problems it has (the dialogue, the acting, the lack of plot), there is still a lot of charm. A lot of the goodwill stems from that wild and crazy them song by Queen, as well as the rest of their contributed music. There is something about that song that gets the geek in me a little giddy. On top of that, the performances may be bad, but are still rather fun. Max von Sydow brings a regal air to the evil Ming, while his right hand man, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), is downright mean. While the colors offer lots of pretty things to look at, we should not forget Dale's Melody Anderson and Princess Aura's Ornella Muti, a pair of lovely ladies who will give you even more to look at. That brings us to Sam J. Jones, whose Flash is rather wooden and charmless. He definitely looks the part, but doesn't quite have the presence to be completely successful. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Kurt Russell gotten the role (he had auditioned for it).
Directorial duties fell to Mike Hodges, whose previous outings included Get Carter and Damien: Omen II. He does a fine job of giving the movie an old school sheen. He definitely embraced the low tech aesthetics. Hodges did well, but he was not the first choice for the chair. George Lucas had pursued the rights for years. When he found them unavailable, he turned his attentions towards his old school serial-inspired original creation, Star Wars (thank you, Dino Di Laurentis). Other names that were approached include Federico Fellini (Amarcord, 8 1/2) and Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth).
Audio/Video. This "Savior of the Universe Edition" features remastered audio and video, and it looks great. The video is anamorphic widescreen, 2.35:1. The colors literally jump off the screen, especially when you see some of the footage in the extras. The audio has a distinctly '80s tinge to it that fits everything about this movie.
- Alex Ross, Renowned Comic Book Artist, on Flash Gordon. Ross is an amazing artist, and here he speaks of how much of an impact this film had on him as a child and on his career. It is fun to listen to him speak of his love for this film. (13 minutes)
- Writing a Classic: Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Interesting interview on how the script was created, and how it could have been bettered had there been some criticism of his writing. (9 minutes)
- Flash Gordon 1936 Serial Episode: Chapter One: Planet of Peril. Want to see some old school Flash? This will fit the bill, and probably make you want to see some more. (the old serials are public domain, I found a really bad copy on Veoh) (20 minutes)
- Trailers. A lame teaser for the new series on the Sci Fi Channel, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
Bottom line. Shut down your brain, pop up some corn, and have some fun. This really is a fun movie. Loud colors, kicking music, shiny clothes, crazy set decoration, the stunning Ornella Muti, and an awesome Alex Ross cover — what else do you need?