A football star (Sam J. Jones, 10) somehow finds himself travelling on a space ship to the mysterious planet Mongo where he discovers that the planet’s ruler, Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow, The Exorcist), has a plan to destroy Earth.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Flash, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”
Many years before filmmakers Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan made comic book movies more serious and realistic, the general consensus was that comics were for kids, so comic book film adaptations were expected to be brash and sophomoric. Flash Gordon is reflective of the movie industry’s pre-2000s attitude towards comic characters: it’s outrageously colorful, corny and cheesy by design.
Rather than straying away from an established formula, producer Dino De Laurentiis (Conan The Barbarian) and director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) gave audiences exactly what they were expecting from a movie based on a comic. De Laurentiis and Hodges probably went a little too far — Flash Gordon wasn’t a major success at the box office. Apparently, not everybody liked a heavy dose of unabashed kitschiness.
Sure, Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s (co-creator of the campy 1960s TV show Batman) script stinks, but the awful dialogue and many ridiculous scenes seem to be a deliberate attempt to dumb things down. How do you put down a film that constantly laughs at itself? I find it very hard to dislike a self-deprecating movie, whose only goal is to give audiences a good time — Flash Gordon tickled me in exactly the right places.
In actuality, the movie isn’t as unpretentious and dumb as it pretends to be. Based on characters created by Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon isn’t content with merely bringing a comic strip to life; the film also attempts to evoke the serials of the 1930s. With that in mind, I’m quite sure that the movie won’t make any sense to viewers who have never read an old comic book and/or aren’t familiar with ’30s serials.
But for people who grew up watching Buster Crabbe serials and remember when comics were sold at the grocery store, Flash Gordon is a kooky nostalgia trip. Danilo Donati’s (Amarcord) over-the-top sets and costumes are like things that came straight out of a dream. Rock band Queen’s bizarre but hummable soundtrack amplifies the weird factor (Howard Blake wrote the incidental music). Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s (Star Wars) doesn’t hold back either — there is plenty of strange imagery here.
The large cast is pretty awesome too. While Sam J. Jones’s Flash lacks charisma (he isn’t bad, he’s just a little bland), Melody Anderson (Dead & Buried) delivers the goods as Flash’s spunky love interest, Dale Arden. Anderson demonstrates fine comic timing as she charmingly spoofs the damsel-in-distress archetype (you can tell she is having fun). Topol (Fiddler on the Roof) is good if a bit underused as Dr. Zarkov.
Max von Sydow is fantastic as Ming the Merciless. Interestingly, the Swedish actor plays Ming with a straight face and it turns out to be a wise decision — Sydow is genuinely menacing as the evil emperor! Italian actress Ornella Muti (Swann in Love) is ultra-sexy as Ming’s treacherous daughter, Princess Aura. And Timothy Dalton’s (The Living Daylights) Errol Flynnesque Prince Barin is a complete delight — Dalton’s performance is full of vitality and charm (it’s as if he’s auditioning for the role of 007).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Flash Gordon may not be entirely successful (the project needed someone like Ken Russell, The Devils), but it’s old-fashioned fun. And the film kills two Mongorian bats with one laser gun: It’s not just a blast from the ’80s; it’s a loving tribute to the low-budget serials of the ’30s. As long as you accept it as an unashamedly silly flick, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Recommended to fans of cheese. Color, 109 minutes, Rated PG.