Tuesday, June 2, 2009

King of the Impossible: The Flash Gordon Review.

'He'll save every one of us!' -tag line from the film.

Every so often, a film comes along that speaks to us about the human condition. It tells us of the loftiest heights of our ambition, the folly of our hubris, and the hope that one day we might come to know a better tomorrow through cooperation and mutual understanding. It's a film embraced by the general public and touted as an artistic exemplar of all our hopes and dreams, a treatise that could possibly lead to the establishment of a finer, better world for all of us. Truly, when these once in a lifetime motion pictures play on our screens we may consider ourselves blessed.

Yeah, those movies are really great. . .but sometimes you just want to chuck the societal/cultural commentary and cut loose with a film that is just gloriously batshit insane. A film with vibrant colors, broad characterization, derring-do, and sheer badassery on an epic scale. A movie that tanked at the box office upon its debut but found a new life on home video as one of the cult classics of an age. A movie that by no stretch of the imagination takes itself seriously. It can't be bothered to; after all love can wait when there's only fourteen hours to save the Earth! If you like your movies ponderous and full of themselves, I can't recommend it, but if you want a film that's wall to wall fun on an epic scale then Flash Gordon just might be your cup of tea.

Despite what the zeitgeist seems to think these days, there was a time when there were space opera heroes other than Luke Skywalker and James T. Kirk. Flash Gordon was a comic strip hero created in the mold of Buck Rogers, who fought intergalactic evil in the spaceways long before George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry turned their thoughts to crafting their own interplanetary sagas. Flash was a polo player and all-around American good guy who--along with his pluck Girl Friday Dale Arden and semi-mad scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov--wound up travelling in space to solve the riddle of mysterious meteors threatening the Earth. Winding up on the distant planet of Mongo, they quickly become the bane of tyrant Ming the Merciless and his countless hordes of evil minions. Beginning in 1934 and continuing as of at least 2003, the comic strip Flash Gordon remains an institution in Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's spun off comicbooks, cartoons, television shows, movie serials. . .and of course a 1980 feature film from Dino De Laurentiis.

De Laurentiis' contributions to pop culture cannot be overstated. The guy produced some of the all-time classics of cult cinema; Barbarella, Death Wish, Conan the Barbarian, the 1976 King Kong remake, and the Flash Gordon film. In later years he would produce such films as Manhunter (which first introduced audiences to Hannibal Lecter), the David Lynch adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic Dune, The Dead Zone, and Army of Darkness. His production company even distributed the Transformers movie back in the '80s. Simply put, he produced some of the most amazing pieces of escapist cinema to come out of the last thirty years. He is, in short, utterly awesome.

Flash is one of those films I'd only ever heard about online or in fandom magazines like Starlog or Cinescape. By the time I'd become aware of this 1980 release it was largely off the radar. Luckily for me it was recently re-released on DVD for the masses to once again become acquainted with this zany little masterpiece. Our paths crossed just this Sunday past when at a Blockbuster for some rental fare I came across the movie in the for sale section. The painted cover by fan-favorite artist Alex Ross drew me in, but the SAVIOUR OF THE UNIVERSE EDITION subtitle was what clinched the deal. A combination of intense curiosity and boredom contributed to my sudden impulse buy. With a few friends in tow, we placed the newly-bought disc into the player. . .and were transported.

I don't want to spoil the film, so a thumbnail sketch of the plot follows: Flash Gordon(Sam Jones) is the newest quarterback sensation for the New York Jets (in the original comics he was a polo player but I guess that wasn't 'manly' enough) on his way back to the big city after some time in the country. He meets a young woman on the flight home, Dale Arden(Melody Anderson), and they take to the skies in a dual-propped plane bound for Manhattan. Unfortunately for them (and the rest of the planet), Earth has been targeted for destruction by the meglomaniacal Ming the Merciless(Max von Sydow), warlord tyrant of the planet Mongo, who plans to annihilate the planet. . .but not before toying with it for a bit.

Enter Dr. Hans Zarkov(Topol), a renegade scientist whose wild theories about imminent attack from another world have led to his abrupt dismissal from NASA. He plans to use an experimental rocket of his own design to seek out this marauding planet threatening our globe and make them see reason. Thing is, he needs a flight crew for the rocket and his own assistant is somewhat less than cooperative. Enter Flash and Dale who--after their pilots are atomized by one of Ming's fierce attacks--come to a crash landing in Zarkov's greenhouse after Flash (who's been taking flying lessons y'see) manages to bring the plane to a rough landing. With a bit of shaky fast-talking and a pistol for persuasion, the intrepid trio soon find themselves blasting off to the stars, falling into a space warp that leads them to the planet Mongo and it's neighboring moons.

Can Flash defeat Ming and his wicked adviser, the crafty Klytus(Peter Wyngarde) and his lieutenant, the wicked Kala(Mariangela Melato)? Will he be able to resist the cunning charms of the nubile Princess Alura(Ornella Muti), Ming's own daughter? Can he unite the squabbling warriors of the forest world of Arboria and their own Prince Balin (Timothy Dalton) and the winged warriors of the hawkmen of Sky City and Prince Vultan(Brian Blessed) into a force to overthrow Ming's tyrannical rule? Can good triumph over evil within the running time of a classic space opera?

Chances are pretty good you know the answers to all of the above, but if you dismiss the film based on it's (admittedly) hokey premise you'd be doing yourself a disservice. Flash is by no means a classic of the genre that will change everything you know about life, the universe, and everything. But it is an amazingly fun, visually stunning, epic piece of purest, zestiest Gorgonzola cheese that doesn't shy away from the cliches of the genre, but embraces them with a zesty grin and a playful wink. If you can't appreciate Flash's battle tactics in Ming's throne room, or his sincere (and repeated) desire to team up with others to overthrow Ming, if you can't accept that a man can be publicly executed, brought back to life, and then be macked on by an amazingly slinky and seductive alien princess, if you cannot accept a universe where people fly and speak in a seeming vacuum on sky sleds and rockets with fins, if you absolutely positively cannot accept a fleet of hawkmen warriors swooping down from the skies amidst the pounding drums and rippling guitar licks of Queen as we're told Flash Gordon is the saviour of the universe! Well, this film may not be for you. It's a cheesy movie, but also a visual feast and amazingly fun in it's corny, endearing way. If you haven't checked it out I encourage you to do so. Mere adjectives cannot hope to encompass the vibrant colors, ludicrous predicaments, and the exultant joy of the delivery of certain lines('The inhabitants refer to it as the planet. . .Earth', 'Gordon's alive?!') have to be seen in order to be believed.

Mike Hodges's direction of the film seems a mixture of the classic Flash serials as well as the '60s Batman television series, which is no surprise given writer Lorenzo Semple Jr's experience with that show. I could cheerleader about this thing all day, but it's only because I was so utterly taken with a film that just dared to be completely, utterly in love with its subject matter and its universe, while being unafraid to look silly doing so. In an age where Science Fiction and Fantasy have become a bit pretentious with how seriously they take themselves, Flash is a welcome breath of fresh air. No, more than that. He's a miracle! Flash! Aaaahhh. . .!


1 comment:

snell said...

True Fact:

I have seen this movie more often than any other film.

Far more often.

To this day, I still startle my friends by jumping up at random intervals and screaming, "Check the angular vector of the moon!"