Wednesday June 9, 2004

Flash Gordon

I re-watched the 1980 version of Flash Gordon yesterday. I hadn't seen it for many years, but TiVo picked it up. Now, I can't claim that I had high expectations going in. I remembered it as being mediocre. Turns out I remembered wrong: it's a terrible, terrible movie.

It's not entirely bad. The sets and some of the minatures are pretty cool. Whoever was in charge of production design clearly loved Alex Raymond's cities and landscapes and spaceships and costumes. The swirly neon Barbarella cloudscapes suit the fantastic setting. It starts out well, too. The pre-credit sequence where Ming toys with the Earth—Earth quake! Hot hail!—is a classic. The credit sequence that follows is nearly perfect, with animated images from the comic strip—Hawk men! Rocket ships!—flying across the screen to the strains of Queen's memorable theme song. (Flash! Ah-ah! Savior of the Universe!) The cast is pretty impressive, too. Von Sydow is perfect as Ming, Topol's Dr. Zarkov is smart but also a bit Mad, Timothy Dalton makes a great Prince Barin, and Brian Blessed was born to play Vultan.

That's about everything nice I can say about it. Sam Jones, who plays Flash, is awful, awful, awful. Can't act, no charisma, Farrah hair. He's Michael Kelso, Action Hero. Budding filmmakers, take note: it's not a good sign when you have to dub all the lines of the lead actor. And why did they have to make him a football player? I realize polo is a little effete for the 1980's, but Flash isn't supposed to be big and dumb (go for the Buster Crabbe homage and make him a swimmer). Melody Anderson as Dale Arden is neither good nor bad, she just kind of uses up screen time without making an impression.

The script was a complete disaster. The filmmakers couldn't decide whether or not to play the movie for laughs. It alternates between promising popcorn action and pure stupidity. Example: Ming tries to order the Prince of the Ardentia to fall on his sword, but the Prince tries to take him out. Good! Then, Flash doesn't know how to fight the guards, so Zarkov throws him a football-shaped egg to trigger his gridiron-fu. DUMB. There's an ongoing but poorly-handled attempt to reproduce the cliffhanger structure of the original. Flash is excecuted—except he's not! Zarkov has his memory erased—except that he doesn't! Flash gets killed again—except not really!

Take the ending of the movie as an example. ['Ware spoilers!] It doesn't even make sense on its own terms. Flash is flying War-rocket Ajax (cool name!) straight at Ming's palace while a timer ticks down the seconds until the moon crashes into the Earth. Barin and Zarkov need to deactivate the lightning field that surrounds the city. Barin says they can't get to the power reactors because they're six miles below ground, so instead they find the control room and, um, shoot something that turns off the field. Flash comes crashing in, conveniently impaling Ming on the needle-sharp tip of the rocket. As the final seconds tick down, an transfixed but surprisingly spry Ming defies Flash using his big ol' ring, but then he turns it on himself and disintegrates (for some reason) with two seconds to spare. Barin and Zarkov show up, saying they've destroyed the reactors—which we were just told they couldn't reach. At this point, we the audience are thinking, "So, Earth was destroyed, right?" Suddenly, Ming's floating robot shows up, and tells Flash, "You've saved your Earth!" Um, how did he do that, exactly? By flying into a building? Or did Ming have some kind of anti-Doomsday device that was triggered by his disintegration? Or did destroying the reactors that they couldn't destroy cause the moon to rubber-band back into its orbit?

Two thumbs down, and if I had more hands, there'd be more thumbs.

I know I'm geeking out about a 24-year-old movie. It's just that I grew up watching the (more than 60-year-old) movie serials—when I was five those ruled. I gather that George Lucas originally wanted to remake Flash Gordon but couldn't get the rights, so he ended up writing Star Wars instead, borrowing the scrolling introduction, wipe cuts, and a bunch of other stuff. Imagine what Lucas at his peak—the ANH/ESB Lucas, the guy who came up with Star Wars out of nowhere—could have done with an established character and story. I guess we'll never know, and maybe it's better that he had to start from scratch on his own series. There are apparently perpetually circulating rumors that somebody's going to make Flash Gordon again (not to mention the rumors about A Princess of Mars). I hope this time they do it right, or not at all.

I did have a great t-shirt idea during the movie, though. At the beginning of the movie, Jones is wearing a t-shirt with his name across the chest, which might have been some sort of comment on sports stars' egos, I can't say. In any case, somebody should start printing up t-shirts that have your name across the front in the Flash Gordon font, with a line of your choice from the Queen song across the back. "King of the Impossible!" sounds promising, but I think I'd go with "I'll Save Every One of You!"

[Now playing: "Earth (Gaia)" by The Orb]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Um, Lucas didn't come up with Star Wars out of nowhere. He basically redid a Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress, which has been argued to be a remake of the John Wayne flick The Searchers. Neither SW nor HF were independent of Searchers (ducking pans flying at head). I apologize if this alters anyone's impression of Lucas. =)

Posted by: agm at Jun 9, 2004 1:10:09 PM

And that'll teach me to comment before reading all the links. The only thing to quibble with in the linked-to page is the difference between remaking a movie and being influenced by it (my movie geeks friends lean more towards Lucas remaking Hidden Fortress, and I defer to their judgment).

Posted by: agm at Jun 9, 2004 1:17:36 PM

Actually, is there anything in the Dino DeLaurentiis oeuvre which really qualifies as "good"? I guess Army of Darkness was good in a campy sort of way, and the same for Conan, but when he's the producer, the movie is almost guaranteed to be cheesy.

Posted by: Semantic Compositions at Jun 9, 2004 1:53:00 PM

Yeah, I guess "out of nowhere" is too strong, since Star Wars had a lot of influences. I meant "not a remake of an existing story". Lucas's genius was picking and choosing elements from a bunch of different sources and fusing them together into something new. (And that genius operated for two-and-a-half movies, apparently.)

I've seen The Hidden Fortress, by the way, and I think the extent to which Lucas borrowed the plot has been exaggerated. Threepio and Artoo, certainly, but the story was just another of the elements that he stirred into the pot.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jun 9, 2004 2:18:33 PM

yay, i love the fact that you not only reviewed flash gordon but your idea about having your own 'flash' style t-shirt rocks. i have one complaint tho, you missed my blog off your list of those concerning flash gordon (, granted my review of the movie purely from memory has only reached as far as the first 5 mins of the movie, but hey, it is a work in progress.

i hope you don't mind but i am going to put a link to your flash gordon review in my blog. if you do mind then obviously throw me an e-mail and i will take it out.

nice blog tho, thanks.


Posted by: owen at Jul 12, 2004 8:56:47 AM

Sci-Fi FLASH GORDON is not your fathers FLASH, it’s better. A great sci-fi pilot. I will definatly fallow this show. FLASH lives????
I wish people would stop saying this show is bad, just because ts not a SMALLVILLE spin-off. I love-ed the AQUQ-MAN pilot but it SUCKED in comparison to FLASH GORDON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: flashsotu at Aug 13, 2007 6:07:48 AM

A prime example of thinking inside the box. You're dragging in traditional acting tenets and a Hollywood filmmakers' paradigm to evaluate a subversive work that flaunts a disregard for all that with raging flamboyance. Flash Gordon isn't 'cheap' or 'inept' because it nails what it's going after: Satirical and sexual glitter-glam wrapped around a remarkably faithful take on the male-centric serial matinee hero. I watched the old Flash Gordons too, and while I certainly loved them as well, the whole point of the 1980 film is to poke intentional and campy fun at the cultural ideology and propaganda of pre-WWII America. Only we Hollywood-conditioned media consumers would assert that you can't make something like that work without taking it seriously, or painting it with precision strokes.

Flash Gordon remains a film that you either 'get' or you 'don't'. You have more golden codpieces, racial tensions, midgets, BDSM, phallic and masonic imagery everywhere and skintight spandex than you can shake a blaster at. That, and two words: Princess Alura. Or, if men are your thing, our titular acting-challenged fellow in leather speedos should tip you off that there's a bit more going on here than a by-the-numbers homage to the comics or episodes of Buster Crabbe. Thankfully.

Perish the thought that this HAD been a formula film studio rehash. How forgettable would it have been? Instead, how beautifully flawed and fierce remains this wildy imagined farce... A work that was thrilling to me a the age of twelve for its colorful vision matched to a driving Queen soundtrack and, now, at the age of 39, for its unsubtle perversions and gaudy audacity.

Relax, have a drink or a smoke and watch Flash Gordon on a big screen (not some square aspect TiVo crap on a little TV). Do it with some friends who have a sense of humor. See if that changes your view.

Posted by: bill at Aug 15, 2007 12:55:40 PM

How low can this series get? Having begun its SciFi broadcast life in a hole deeper than the Mariana Trench, the latest episode sinks to even more impossible depths. And it does so with the weight of a stone searching for the limits of a bottomless pit.

Ironically entitled, "Ascension," this plodding episode features disappointingly grounded Hawkmen that seem to spend most of their lives cavorting about in a Mongo suburb that looks a heck of a lot like the city dump.

When not making strangled screeching noises in a kind of sad and desperate attempt to sound bird-like, the Hawkmen perform a curious dance with steps evidently inspired by a Tourette's sufferer burdened with a full bladder.

Flash, whose nickname really ought to be "Tedious," follows rather than leads his band of bored actors from one ridiculous scene to another, along the way sharing the culpability of the incompetent writers.

Exhibiting a singular flair for the pedestrian, even the villains of this series cannot generate enough enthusiasm to utter even one marginally malevolent remark.

How low can this idiotic drivel go? Let's just say that this show aspires to climb to the depths of mediocrity.

Posted by: Wraith at Sep 15, 2007 12:03:19 AM

It's an imaginative, colorful, playful and gorgeous movie. It's truly a gentle satire, not the hack job it's portrayed as in this humorless and infantile review. Not everyone is stuck in a perpetual state of irony-free boyhood and for once a sci-fi movie didn't pander to that audience.

If you want to see how dull and empty a straight take on the material can be, just watch the new tv show. Turns out the naysayers have been dead wrong about the movie for years.

Posted by: Gry at Oct 14, 2007 10:16:57 PM